In my fights for women’s rights, I have been startled to see how often the issue had an important element of disability activism. Take abortion rights and access to birth control. I am under consideration for being included in drug trials. My participation includes the need not to become pregnant. In order to ensure this, it is important that I have access to birth control. This means that doctors or pharmacists who choose not to make birth control readily available don’t just take away my rights as a person to make my own medical decisions; they are actively putting my health at risk. In the event that I do get pregnant, having safe and easy access to abortion services is necessary. As long as I am not in remission, being pregnant is a serious risk to my survival.
Similarly, my atheism and skepticism is brought into sharp focus by my struggles with medical conditions. Responding to religious and anti-science pundits is a daily act for those of us who are disabled. We face woo on a personal level, with it directed directly at us from friends, family members, and authority figures. Even non-atheists are harmed by the lack of secular services available to help those in need within our community.
Disability activism highlights the importance of intersectionality since it can be the result as well as the cause of discrimination and marginalization. Many people who fall within the category of being trans, queer, women, people of colour, and so forth live with the very real risk of physical harm and abuse, and as a result are at risk for anxiety, ptsd, depression, and physical impairment resulting from violence.
If we define disability as a physical or mental barrier from successfully and/or comfortable navigating our society, then race, gender, sexual and gender orientation, can all be seen as being disabilities. Perhaps disability activism should be then seen as changing the world in such a way as to make the whole world more accessible to people of all genders, orientations, races, religions or lack thereof, and physical and mental ability. Where potentially other social justice concerns differ from disability is that in the case of the former, the barriers are almost universally external, whereas in the case of the latter there do exist internal barriers as well, which may be further strengthened by the external.
Our society has such a negative attitude towards disability however, that even people that fall into the socially accepted definition of that category struggle against being labeled as such. “I’m sick, but I’m not… you know… disabled.” It is hard to make the argument that disability is in any way a positive. Disability is painful, whether mental or physical. It makes your life harder. It can make it difficult to live a life that is socially deemed as worthwhile or productive. The personal aspects of disability won’t change, but what can change are the external barriers that exist in our societies. By changing our concept of normalcy from “white cis straight able bodied male who is financially secure” we can begin to change how our society handles differences.
Take mobility impairment for example. Most of our architecture and infrastructure is predicated on the assumption that people can walk. As a result, most buildings, sidewalks, and so forth are difficult to navigate for those of us for whom mobility is an issue. Where mobility disability is taken into account, it is usually in such a way as to be out of the way. Elevators are the most common solution, but of course elevators break down, are not consistently implemented, and in the event of an emergency such as fire, they are inaccessible. Imagine if we had a paradigm shift and instead based our architecture on the idea that a percentage of the population is not mobile? What if we replaced all stairwells with ramps? True, ramps take up more space then stairwells as they have to have lower incline then staircases do, but such a change would not negatively impact anyone. In fact, it would be beneficial to more than just the wheelchair bound. Parents with strollers, for example, would have a much easier time navigating, as would anyone who relies on wheel-based carriers. There would be a lower incidence of injury as falling down a ramp is less physically intense then falling down stairs.
Our culture’s obsession with ranking relative value and worthiness is at the heart of many instances of oppression; white is more valuable than not-white, male is more valuable than female, cis is more valuable than trans, so forth and so forth. We do this with every aspect of our culture: someone who becomes a janitor or a blue collar worker is seen as less valuable then someone who majors in business. In fact blue collar or no collar work is seen as the domain of “stupid***” people, and anyone who is “stupid” is inherently less valuable.
People with disabilities struggle with the concept of worthiness, or more specifically worthlessness, in particular. Our culture values productivity above many other things and the definitions of productivity can be limiting. When you exist in a body that forces you to spend entire days in bed for no other reason than because the pain you feel makes it too exhausting to get up, it can be difficult to feel like you have worth. When you see your friends and family members have to rearrange their lives around you, you get caught thinking over and over again, is it worth it? You feel like a burden. You feel worthless since by conventional standards you are not a productive member of society.
By the standards of our current society, we are worthless, and we are introduced to this idea every day. We hear about how people who rely on disability support payments are lazy. Every time someone talks about how they were “useless” because they spent the day in bed or at home, it is like a hot needle of shame shoved in our hearts. It is a reminder that as far as the majority of society is concerned, we are worthless.
Casual ableism is so prevalent in our society that in many ways what many would consider the most benign of insults, are actually terms most often used to marginalize people with disabilities. That’s so lame, dumb, stupid, idiotic, retarded*, he’s so blind, slow, crazy, such a spaz, all these phrases and more have lost in the social memory the association with disability. And yet, that association exists. Imagine being a non-verbal child who knows that the designation for their impairment is used as a synonym for lacking in intelligence? Why is the opposite of cool or awesome a word that means having mobility impairment?
This casual ableism is prevalent in many social justice communities as well. Often, little to no thought is given on how a given subject, action, and what not affects the disabled. Marches are organized without thought on how this limits participation by those who have difficulty with walking. Having sign language interpreters is the exception and not the rule. The activist behaviours most accessible to people with disabilities, the creation of online petitions, writing, Facebook posts, is given the dubious label of slacktivism. This term is given without consideration of how for some, these may be the only outlets for social change available to them. Many in the community see nothing wrong with comparing religious belief to mental illness.
Within the feminist community, when calling out the gas-lighting behaviour that associates the word crazy with women, little to no thought is given to the inherent trouble with using crazy as a pejorative. What about women with bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety, ptsd? Is it ok to call them crazy since in some ways they are? Is it ok in that case to disregard what they have to say as unimportant, lacking in reason or merit?
When these concerns are brought up the thoughts are often dismissed as unimportant or at best thought exercises. When prominent atheist activists like Miri of Brute Reason have brought up the negative impact on atheists with mental disabilities to compare religion to one, the matter sparked some debate but no pressure existed to enforce a change of behaviour. The culprits had no fear of continuing their actions, even where they had previously done so to accommodate other social justice concerns.
In other cases where concerns over ableism or inaccessibility were brought up, they were met with hostility and immediate dismissal.
When members of the community are dismissed or forced out from their positions due to their illness, we do not see the same level of public outcry as if someone were let go for reporting harassment, or forced out due to their race, beliefs, or gender expression. The marginalization or discrimination against people with disabilities doesn’t cause scandals. It is as most a blip on the radar evoking the half-hearted response of “that sucks”.
Disability concerns are an after-thought at most, if that. When it comes to activism, disability doesn’t have the sex appeal of issues such as sexual orientation, gender, and race**. When you are someone who struggles with disability and particularly with raising awareness of the issues as they exist within our communities, this dismissal creates a feeling of resentment. This is particularly the case when an inability to raise awareness on such issues means a continuation of the devastating impacts of living with these disabilities.
When a known member of the community struggled with potential homelessness as a result of their disability and inability to get the support they needed, the response was half-hearted at best despite the money being asked for being less than outrageous. Raising it took a long time, putting pressure on the person in question as homelessness loomed. This occurred around the same time that the response to an unknown preacher losing his job due to a publicity stunt involving atheism raised in the tens of thousands in a matter of days.
We as a community need to respond to the call to arms to support our own members. Members whose everyday struggles are a lived manifestation of the need for atheist and feminist activism; our members whose struggles are intimately intertwined with the professed concerns of this social movement. It is time to examine our own ableism. It is time to let wounded voices have a chance to speak. It is time to show the morality we claim of ourselves. A response to arms means more than just bringing awareness to a necessary social issue; it can quite literally save lives. I call on all those who call themselves humanists, intersecitionalists, to shut up and listen.
*I include the word “retard” here as a strengthening example, with full knowledge that it is becoming less socially considered to be benign.
**It is worth mentioning that when it comes to social justice, race concerns are dismissed more frequently than many of the others and is lacking in representation among our community concerns.
*** My use of the term stupid in this case is to illustrate how the term is used as a pejorative against people who have different types of intelligence. It was included with an assumption that I would continue on to explain how the term affects people with cognitive disabilities, but in the end chose not to include those paragraphs.