The Language of Ableism

Ableism and the systemic isolation of people with disabilities are injustices that have been overlooked (many times, intentionally) even in our increasingly growing awareness of social justice. This very real oppression frequently slips through the cracks of our seemingly advanced moral consciousness often because of ‘moral’ silencing and assumed practicality.

In a must-read article on accommodating people with disabilities in organisations in Medium, an American organisation called the Northwest Health Foundation defines ableism as “the practices and attitudes in society that devalue and limit the potential of people with disabilities”. Our conversations on disability tend to centre around feelings of pity for those affected and performative moral gestures. Besides these gestures treating people with disabilities like children or people who do not possess the pride of wanting to be self-reliant, this superficial engagement also provide a facade to cover able-bodied people’s inexperience in being decent people towards people living with disabilities.

Anti-ableism activists are often hit with accusations of PC-ness (political correctness). A few weeks ago, we addressed the use of silencing tactics such as individuals or groups who want to have their rights and personal autonomy respected being branded as PC  combatants who want to destroy freedom of speech and the values that supposedly hold society together. However, as we saw from the previous article, anti-PC spokespeople tend to be people who have historically have had the world or their immediate social surrounds be their personal safe spaces. Thus, when other individuals or groups who inhabit those same spaces but are not safe in them fight for the right to be seen and respected, they are accused of political correctness or entitlement. In essence, the term ‘political correctness’ is a sham used to shame marginalised people into feeling that their rights are infantile and are not important enough to be looked into, let alone be put into legislation.

People living with disabilities are often mystified in popular narratives in attempts to exclude them when then they are not being condescended to by their able-bodied counterparts. Painting and photograph by Loyiso Gxothiwe.
People living with disabilities are often mystified in popular narratives in attempts to exclude them — when they are not being condescended or abused by their able-bodied counterparts. Painting and photograph by Loyiso Gxothiwe.

As in the example of PC-ness, language is a key element in perpetuating ableism and silencing people living with disabilities. Language is also a key element in unlearning and rectifying our behaviour as able-bodied people towards people with disabilities. One of the most common ways we use to undermine or oppress people with disabilities is in our colloquial or conversational, everyday use of language. Phrases such as “that’s lame”, “midget”, “pale as an albino”, “I’m Stevie Wonder to [insert something one is ignoring] or substituting blindness or deafness to something we do not recognise or like can be very insensitive and hurtful to someone living with those conditions. We cannot only check what we say only when disabled people are in the room out of pity. Besides this performative concern being condescending and infantilising, other forms of disability do not show physical signifiers that we expect to confirm the presence of disability.

Language evolves with our growth as humans as has been shown by the outlawing of many racial or gender-based slurs over the years. Therefore, coming up with new jokes or conversational phrases that are not centred in ableism should not be hard. Abstaining from using slurs that hurt people should not be a difficult task to undertake unless those terms are part of our investment in retaining power over others.

Disability is not always characterized by physically perceptible conditions. An often overlooked disability which carries a lot of stigma is mental health. Because mental health is often not perceptible in someone’s physical attributes or their actions, people often treat it as a self-inflicted condition. This results in people not being ashamed of being abusive towards people living with mental health issues because they are “just crazy” or must have done something which led to them “losing their mind”.

In Tarkastad specifically, I have witnessed many young school children and adults regularly taunting a mentally unstable, homeless man as a form of enjoyment. This children are sometimes encouraged by adults who laugh with them and provide protection for the children should the man retaliate. This is not unique to Tarkastad and I am ashamed to say that as a child, I also participated in this disgusting behaviour. A lot of people with people issues who suffer this kind of abuse are usually poor and/or homeless. In 2011, The Atlantic reported that there is a strong correlation mental health issues and poverty.The writer, Esther Ethin, stated that poor people are at an “increased risk of mental illness compared to their economically stable peers”. The article stated this is caused by the fact that poor people’s lives are more stressful than those who are not poor. Among other medical factors, this is also due to the trauma, violence and general state abuse they face as poor people. In effect, sanctioning abuse, verbal or otherwise, against mentally ill people (especially those who are homeless) adds to the trauma they already face living with those conditions.

Another dangerous conversation we tend to have around mental health is assigning psychopathic behaviour to people living with mental and emotional health issues. This is very common in mainstream films and media. People living with mental health conditions are always serial killers or characters who commit heinous crimes out of enjoyment. This not only mystifies and adds further stigma to people with mental health issues, it can be used to excuse crimes of people who, because of their proximity to privilege, are not expected to commit certain crimes. This has been the case with Dylan Roof and many white or rich people who have committed atrocious crimes. Mainstream media has painted these perpetrators as mentally disturbed individuals as their proximity to whiteness and/or economic privilege supposedly means that they cannot be criminals. These excuses are usually not afforded to poor people or people of colour who similar commit crimes. Removing accountability from privileged individuals or groups does not bring awareness to ableist attitudes attached to mental health but paint people with mental illness as violent psychopaths in waiting. People like Donald Trump are able to escape the weight of their bigoted views and remarks and the very real consequences of those views because “he’s just crazy”.

A discussion on Al Jazeera’s The Stream revealed the way in which the media perpetuates inaccurate and violent people ideas about albinism and people living with that condition. People living with albinism are being subjected to violence and ‘cultural’ murders across the globe. Although the murders of people suffering from this condition has come to be seen as an issue unique to Africa, these killings happen all over the world, including the West. People living with albinism have been depicted as red-eyed villains in many popular Hollywood movies like The Da Vinci Code, The Matrix Reloaded and many others. Many people have taken those depictions of albinism as fact which has made the lives of those living with this condition very difficult. Some of the panelists on The Stream said that growing up people would ask them if their eyes turn red at night or if their skin provides luck to people who touch it. An ableist term which I unlearned on the show is ‘albino’. Referring to people living with albinism as ‘albinos’ is wrong for the mere fact this group of people are being reduced to a skin condition. People with other medical conditions do not (usually) get referred to by their illnesses.

Being aware of someone’s plight and my power over them as an able-bodied or privileged person in that dynamic is not PC culture. It is being aware that the world has been a safe space for us in ways that it has not been for others. What is required of us to be invested in being decent towards other human beings. When someone tells you that they are uncomfortable with language or behaviour you use towards their identity or group, make an investment in learning about them (without them having to go outside of themselves to make you comfortable), Unlearning ableism is also crucially important for many who have had to accommodate the already accommodated while also braving the act of existing.