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Hey, Progressives: Please Stop Being Jerks about Disability

February 12th, 2021     by Denise Reich     Comments

Illustration by Marlee Jennings

Dear fellow progressives,

If you advocate for positive, inclusive advances in society, believe in equality and social support, think science and climate change are real, support LGBTQ+ rights and do not believe religion should dictate public policy, I’d like to chat with you for a moment.

We need to talk about ableism and lack of accessibility in progressive spaces. There’s still too much of the former and not enough of the latter. We’re supposedly on the same side, striving for the same ideals, but some of you still treat disability as a flaw, an insult or an inconvenience. It’s been four long years since the original charter of the Women’s March referred to disability as a burden. It’s now 2021. Why are we still doing this?

What made me angry? Maybe it was the the U.S. congressman who claims he respects his constituents, but made a video – filmed by his kids – mocking hand tremors.

Maybe it’s the way a podcast with a transcript is as rare as a unicorn.

Maybe it’s the way words like “crazy” and “dementia” are freely thrown around as pejoratives.

Maybe it’s the people who insist that illness can be cured by diet and exercise, so if we all followed the Paleo Carb Free Super Seaweed Probiotic Diet, bought only organic food and did yoga, we wouldn’t need healthcare.

Maybe it was the non-profit supposedly about “self-acceptance” that gaslit me when I requested accommodation for an activity, and then made public passive-aggressive comments about it.

Maybe it was reading of that New Zealand restaurant chain that tried to “start a conversation” by substituting an ingredient – that was a potential allergen – without informing its customers. Or that Manhattan restaurant that deliberately served food with high-gluten flour to customers who requested gluten-free meals.

Maybe it was hearing about companies that refused to accommodate disabled people’s requests to work from home but, when the pandemic began, arranged full-time telecommuting for every single employee.

Maybe it’s all of the above. Maybe it’s the collective negative impact on the disabled people who experience these slights firsthand or witness them, and the way it contributes to stereotypes as a whole. Maybe it’s the painful realization that the negativity and stigma surrounding disability are often fuelled by those who claim to be allies.

The Cambridge Dictionary gives a simple definition of ally: “Someone who helps and supports someone else.” With allies like these, do we need enemies?

As a disabled person, one comes to expect that allyship is tenuous at best. Disabled people are welcomed when we’re “inspiring” in a way that makes abled individuals feel good about themselves. If we can conceal all evidence of our disability or illness so those around us don’t have to consider it, we’re golden. However, if we request accommodation of any kind or share concerns that we’re not being treated respectfully, we’re shunned. Worse, people often react viscerally if we don’t laugh along with our own denigration. They don’t even consider the possibility that they’re doing any harm or alienating disabled people.

We all know the greatest hits: You need to lighten up. You’re taking it too seriously. You’re misunderstanding. It’s just a joke. I can’t walk on eggshells. People are offended by everything these days. We’re insulting him, not everyone with that disability.

On the right side of the political spectrum, we have people actively trying to kill us by removing assistance for disabled people or insinuating that our lives are “expendable.” The pandemic has made that even more painfully obvious. The death toll from COVID-19 is often downplayed with the rejoinder “but they had pre-existing conditions,” as though that makes lives less valuable.

On the left we have you, our supposed allies. However, when it comes to interaction on a personal level, your allyship often seems to exist more in theory than in practice. Sure, you’ll vote for that law expanding benefits for disabled people, but then you’ll turn around and share ableist memes on social media or accuse someone of “faking it” because they are an ambulatory wheelchair user. Do you even realize the dichotomy there?

This has not swayed me in any way from actively supporting progressive political ideals and candidates, because the goals are still very important. I am hopeful that the majority of people who support progressive platforms actively strive to do better. Doesn’t the label inherently reflect an openness to progress?

I also know that awareness is something we learn over time. Sometimes we might not even realize what we’re doing is hurtful until someone calls it to our attention. There may have been no malicious intent. The problem is that intent doesn’t change outcome. The words still hurt and the stereotypes are still perpetuated, even if you didn’t mean it that way.

As time goes on, I find that, for my own self-care, the majority of my support for the progressive movement occurs in the absence of meaningful dialogue and social interaction with the non-disabled community. I don’t trust you anymore, and I’m exhausted by the casual ableism many of you exhibit. After all, if you have not bothered to make your events and outreach programs accessible, you clearly don’t want me there anyway.

Progressive community, do you actually want to be inclusive, or just claim that you are because it sounds good? I’d like to believe it’s the former.

If you want to truly be allies to ill and disabled people, you need to start paying attention to the harm it does when you denigrate disability. Stop talking over disabled people. Listen more. Let your allyship be something tangible, not meaningless words.

No love whatsoever,


About the Author: Denise Reich (she/her) has contributed to Shameless for many years, with interests in disability/chronic illness advocacy, Star Wars and classic media. She has danced since she was small.

Tags: body politics, disability, disability justice, politics

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