If you are oppressed, then you face ableism. It’s that simple.
You’re probably not used to this concept at all, so I’ll explain(1). Bear with me, because this is quite important whether you know it yet or not.
From my perspective, there’s two main ways that oppressions collide with each other. One is horizontal. One is what I’d call vertical or embedded. This post is about vertical or embedded oppression, which very few people discuss. Horizontal oppression, on the other hand, is very fashionable to dissect in detail at the moment, and I’ll leave that to the people who are much better at it than I am.
Horizontal oppression works more or less like this: Sexism and homophobia can go together because lesbians exist, who are both gay and female. Racism and transphobia go together because there are trans people of color. Etc. The connection is a side-to-side one.
Vertical oppression works more or less like this: Sexism and homophobia are connected vertically, because sexism is embedded within homophobia: You can’t have some of the core aspects of homophobia, without also having sexism. This applies not just to lesbians, but also to gay men. Because a large element of homophobia against gay men involves comparing them to women, and applying many of the same sexist attitudes towards gay men that would normally be attributed to women. That’s where you get the idea that there’s something wrong with gay men because gay men are sissies, effeminate, possess feminine attributes, etc. They’re first equated with women and then degraded in ways that have to do with women. You can’t have homophobia minus the sexism and have it take anything like a recognizable shape. It depends on sexism. That’s the big difference between horizontal and vertical oppression. Another big difference is that horizontal oppression is symmetrical (sexism + ableism = ableism + sexism) but vertical oppression is not (sexism is embedded in homophobia but homophobia is not embedded in sexism).
Every kind of oppression is connected to every other kind of oppression horizontally. But not every kind of oppression is connected to every other kind of oppression vertically. Some kinds of oppression are not embedded in any other kind of oppression at all. Other kinds of oppression are embedded in just one or two kinds of oppression. Other kinds of oppression are embedded in many forms of oppression.
Ableism is, to my knowledge, the only kind of oppression that is embedded in every other kind of oppression I have heard of. I have my theories as to why, but they’re not relevant here. When I say things like this, people think that I’m trying to make a case that ableism is the worst kind of oppression, or that I’m trying to get in some kind of pissing contest or another with regards to whose oppression is more uniquely terrible than anyone else’s. I’m not. This has nothing to do with that kind of comparison. It’s just that some kind of oppression had to be the one embedded in more kinds of oppression than any other, and ableism happened to fit the bill.
I’m not the only person to notice this. I think I’m the first person to coin the idea of horizontal versus vertical oppression, although I’m sure there are other people who have put similar ideas in different words. But disabled people have been talking about the pervasiveness of ableism in other forms of oppression for a really long time. We have tried to convince other oppressed people that our fight is, by necessity, their fight. Generally people don’t understand what we’re saying and find ways to ignore it, forget it, or even belittle it.
But people really should pay attention when we say this. Because when you have another form of oppression embedded within your own, you can’t possibly address your own oppression without addressing the other. Not because of a horizontal connection that only exists in certain circumstances. But because of a vertical connection that you can’t possibly get away from: Your oppression would not be the same kind of oppression without that other oppression stuck very close to the center. If you’re gay and you truly want to end homophobia forever, you can’t get away from having to deal with sexism. You can’t. You can pretend that you can, but you can’t actually do it.
So now I’m going to describe some specific examples of ableism in the forms it takes when it’s embedded in other forms of oppression. These are just examples. Later on, I’ll give you some guidelines for how to spot ableism quickly and easily, and where to look for ideas about fighting it. So here are some ways that ableism embeds itself in other forms of oppression:
- When gay people are considered to have a psychiatric disease.
- When men’s rights activists claim that the women’s Olympics are just the Special Olympics under another name.
- When people of color are painted as inferior and deserving of unequal treatment because their IQs are supposedly lower than white people.
- When women’s bodies are seen as a deviant and irregular version of men’s bodies, all medical testing is done on men first and women only as an afterthought, ordinary experiences of women are considered medical while ordinary experiences of men are not, etc.
- When eugenics is applied to poor people and people of color in addition to disabled people. (Eugenics is fundamentally an ableist idea, all applications of eugenics are applications of ableism.)
- When black men involved in riots are deliberately diagnosed with schizophrenia and brain studies are done on them in order to pathologize them and by extension their political stances.
- When political dissidents of all kinds (including those involved in anti-oppression work for their own groups, whatever they may be) are locked up in mental hospitals.
These may seem like scattered examples of specific kinds of treatment, but they’re not. They all have certain core traits in common, and they all combine central characteristics of their own oppression with central characteristics of ableism. Such that it literally does not matter what kind of oppression you face, you’re guaranteed to face ableism as a component part of it. You can’t get away from ableism.
You can try, of course, and many people do try. The most common way other oppressed people deal with ableism is by not really dealing with it at all. Instead of addressing the ableism that forms the core of the problem they’re facing, they distance themselves as far as they can from disabled people.
What do I mean? Take the IQ situation. Nondisabled people of color who are classified as having lower IQs than white people, rarely look into how IQ has been used to oppress disabled people ever since it has existed, pretty much. They don’t look into what cognitive ableism is. They don’t look into the self-advocacy movement by people with intellectual and other developmental disabilities and the many ways they have criticized IQ testing and the way it is used against disabled people. Instead, they try to prove that people of color don’t really have lower IQs than white people.
Mind you, that’s an important thing to prove, if it’s true. But you can’t stop at proving that. Plus, if you really do end up having lower IQs, then you’re basically screwed. Stopping at “They’re wrong about our IQ score, we’re just as smart as anyone else” leaves you vulnerable in addition to inadvertently contributing to the oppression of disabled people. Looking into how the idea of being smart got equated with having a certain IQ score? Looking into how IQ has been used against people who score low on IQ tests (for all kinds of reasons) throughout history? Looking into the general shape of cognitive ableism in general and IQ-based cognitive ableism in particular? Understanding the basics of what ableism is and how it functions – by taking a certain kind of person and saying that we’re biologically inferior and this justifies seeing us as having less value, making fewer contributions to society, and being oppressed and discriminated against?
You have to do all of that. Proving that scientific racism is actually pseudoscience is important. But understanding the ableism that underlies scientific racism is just as important if not more so. Because if you take what happens when you have one of those things and not the other? Proving it’s pseudoscience leaves you forever vulnerable to the claim it’s actually real science. Dealing with ableism means that whether or not your IQ score is technically lower than someone else’s (and if you really look into ableism, you’ll see how meaningless that question can get, because it assumes that people actually have some kind of innate trait called IQ), the core oppression will not be there. And as a bonus you’ll have contributed to lessening oppression against actual disabled people as well, rather than inadvertently contributing to ableism itself.
This will all make a lot more sense when you understand what some of those core characteristics of ableism are. And understanding what some of those core characteristics of ableism are, will make it much easier to spot ableism within your own oppression. I pretty much guarantee that as soon as you understand the basics, you will start seeing it in places you’d never expected. So here are a few very simple aspects of ableism that you can spot within other kinds of oppression:
- Any time one group of people is considered biologically or psychologically inferior to another group of people, and unequal treatment or oppression is justified on that basis, you’re dealing with ableism.
- Any time you deal with eugenics, you’re dealing with ableism. Whether you’re dealing with “pure” eugenics aimed at disabled people in particular, or the more common situation where it’s intermingled with race, class, ethnicity, criminality, and other real and purported traits. You’re probably used to hearing of eugenics in terms of racism, classism, or anti-Semitism, but eugenics originated in ideas about disabled people and those ideas were then applied to all these other groups.
- Any time you deal with medicalization (including psychiatric medicalization), you’re dealing with ableism.
- Any time people are compared on the basis of what they can and cannot do, and that comparison is used as the basis for viewing or treating them differently, ,particularly in a bad way, you’re dealing with ableism.
- Any time you’re dealing with “scientific” proof that a group of people is inferior to another, there’s a really good chance you’re dealing with ableism. If the “science” is couched explicitly in terms of medicine, biology, or psychology, it’s almost definitely ableism. So basically, if you hear that your oppression is justified on “scientific” grounds, perk your ears up for ableism, you’ll probably find it.
- Pretty much any time you’re dealing with a situation where one sort of person is given access to part or all of a society, and another sort of person is barred from that access, and it’s justified on the grounds of ability in some manner, it’s ableism.
- Any time your oppression is framed in terms of people like you being sick or having a medical problem for some kind, there’s ableism involved.
Keep in mind that for all of this, it doesn’t entirely matter whether the purported sickness or diminished ability level is real or not. The ableism is going to be there whether a person is actually possible to classify as disabled, or not. This is one reason that disfigurement is considered a disability in a lot of contexts. It’s also why laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act often contain a piece that says that it’s not just disabled people, but people who are mistaken for disabled people, who are protected. What matters to make something ableism is not whether or not the person qualifies as “biologically inferior,” whatever that means – it’s how people are treated based on that purported inferiority.
Once you start to see the basic patterns involved in ableism, you can see why it’s behind core aspects of every other kind of oppression: Every form of oppression uses ableist ideas, actions, and concepts to further some of its most fundamental goals. You’re going to always have your oppressed group being ranked in a hierarchy based on ability and found wanting. You’re going to always have your oppressed group face some degree of medicalization. You’re going to always have your oppressed group treated in ways that disabled people are treated, and the same sorts of reasons used to justify such treatment. And unless you address these things, you can’t address the way your oppression plays out. They happen in areas too central to how the oppression works — you can’t pretend the ableism doesn’t exist and get rid of the whole oppression at the same time. Your form of oppression would be unrecognizable without ableism as a core feature.
You can learn a lot more about ableism by looking into what disabled people have already figured out about it. If all you can find is lists of “ableist words” with people telling you that stupid is a slur or something, you’re not usually going to find much depth there — whether or not you think stupid is a slur, that’s just not that fundamental to what ableism actually means. And frequently that sort of shallow take on things is what you’ll find if you just look up ableism. But if you look into the hard-core stuff within the zillion different branches of the disability rights movement, you’ll find a lot.
One of the best general introductions to modern disability-rights thinking about ableism in general, that I’ve found, is the book Pride Against Prejudice by Jenny Morris. There are tons of other entry points, that’s just one of the clearest, from my perspective.
You don’t have to agree with everything a disabled person says about ableism. Disabled people don’t all agree with each other.
Some disabled people seem to concentrate entirely on language and insist that it’s the most important thing because it changes people’s thoughts and changing people’s thoughts changes their actions and so forth. I think that’s a dangerous misconception, and I don’t honestly care so much what people think as much as how they treat me – if they think I’m inferior and treat me with respect anyway, then their thoughts are their business. I’d rather deal with someone who treats me with utter respect and calls me the worst ableist slurs I’ve ever encountered (IMHO, “retard” and “vegetable” and “empty shell” are all up there), than deal with someone who knows all the right words but treats me like shit. Other people have other ideas entirely about these things.
You get the idea: We don’t all agree . You don’t have to agree with all of us. You can’t possibly agree with all of us anyway. A lot of times people embroiled in identity politics get really wrapped up in the idea that the oppressed person is always right about their oppression. That’s bullshit. We can be as wrong as anyone. However, we have on average thought more deeply and for longer about our oppression than other people have, so you can benefit from our experience when dealing with the way your own oppression takes the same shape as ours.
And what specific situation you’re talking about will determine a lot about which disabled people you want to go to first. Want to deal with critiques of IQ testing? Go to people with intellectual and other developmental disabilities first. Don’t be fooled by stereotypes, we have a long-standing self-advocacy community who have been developing ideas about this stuff for decades.
And there are also always general ideas about disability that can be applied across the board, but in slightly different ways. The idea of accessibility was once focused entirely on wheelchair access. These days, there’s also a concept of cognitive access. Where interpreters in disability context used to concentrate entirely on translating between signed languages and spoken languages, there are now interpreters who assist people whose speech is hard to understand, and there are cognitive interpreters or English-to-English interpreters who interpret between the words and gestures of someone with a cognitive disability and the words and gestures of someone without a cognitive disability. The social model, like most aspects of mainstream disability theory, was once only for physically disabled people, and is now being applied to cognitively disabled people as well. Neurodiversity was once used in a context that was almost exclusively about autistic people, and now it’s about anyone with a neurocognitive disability.
Understand – I’m not endorsing any of these concepts. I hate some of these concepts. I think some of them are misguided or dangerous or simplistic or all kinds of other things. But I don’t want to decide that for you. I’m just giving you resources as a jumping-off point and you can make up your own mind. Hell, I’m not even that heavily into the idea of analyzing oppression in the way I’ve done in this post. I just think it’s important and useful for someone to be doing it somewhere so that people can see the underlying issue here – which is that you can’t address your own oppression adequately without addressing ableism, no matter what your oppression is, whether you’re also disabled or not.
So with all that in mind, I want to give you some keywords for common disability communities or disability-based ideas. Again, none of this is an endorsement of any of these communities or ideas or the views contained within them. They’re just places to start looking. I get frustrated when people say “Google things, it’s easy” and then won’t even tell you what to Google. Most people don’t even know enough about ableism to know that ableism is fundamentally about unequal treatment on the basis of real or purported biological and psychological characteristics. Most people who have heard of ableism have only heard of it in the contexts of word lists. There’s no way someone in that position is going to even know where to begin on Google, and it’s unfair to have that expectation of people. I’m perhaps more sensitive to that kind of thing specifically because of understanding cognitive ableism – and that’s precisely the sort of situation where an understanding of ableism can be useful throughout any oppressed group. I guarantee as you really learn what ableism is – really learn the depths of it – you will find concepts you can use in fighting your own oppression.
One more note about the keywords: All of these communities and ideologies and intellectual traditions, come from vastly different places. All of them accept some forms of ableism and reject others, that’s pretty much inevitable. Some of them are groups of people formed together mostly by life experiences, others are groups of people formed together mostly by shared diagnostic categories, others are a mixture of both. Some, like the concepts of developmental disabilities and psychiatric disabilities, are more accidents of history than categories that have an automatic, genuine meaning. Some, like psychiatric consumers versus psychiatric survivors, fall within the same broad category of people but differ based on how they interpret their own experiences, which aspects of the medical system they accept and which aspects they reject. But all of these are groups of people, and ideas formed by groups of people, who have formed significant ideas about the rights of disabled people within an ableist society. While the faction wars can be absolutely infuriating at times, the diversity among disabled people in terms of both life experiences and Ideas about those experiences, can be a great strength. You can find really important ideas within every single one of these groupings without ever having to believe everything they say wholesale.
So here’s a list of keywords you might find useful:
- Disability rights, disability rights movement
- Disability culture
- Crip culture, crip, gimp
- Self-advocacy, developmental disability self-advocacy, intellectual disability self-advocacy, learning disability self-advocacy, self-advocates, I/DD self-advocacy
- Cognitive disability, physical disability, psychiatric disability, intellectual disability, developmental disability, sensory disability
- Autistic self-advocacy, autistic liberation, autistic rights, autistic community, autistic culture
- Deaf community, d/Deaf community, Deaf culture
- Psychiatric survivors, psychiatric consumers, psychiatric ex-patients, consumer/survivor/ex-patient, c/s/x, mad pride
- Neurodiversity, neurodiverse, neurodivergent
- Patient advocacy, patient’s rights
- Disability theory, disability studies, social model of disability, radical model of disability
- Disability access, accessibility, universal design, visitability
- [Insert disability, disability-type, or disability-tool name here] access, [Insert disability, disability-type, or disability-tool name here] accessibility – for instance, wheelchair access, wheelchair accessibility, blind access, blind accessibility, screenreader access, screenreader accessibility, cognitive access, cognitive accessibility, etc.
- Cognitive interpreting, English-to-English interpreting, sign language interpreting, [insert specific sign language here] interpreting, speech-to-speech relay
- Ableism, disablism, ablism, disableism, disphobia, handicapism
- Cognitive ableism, psychiatric ableism, physical ableism
I know I’ve left plenty of people out, and this is obviously centered on English-speaking cultures. But that’s more than enough to start with. If you’re looking for specific ideas tailored to specific experiences, then learn what these terms mean so that you can look up those experiences when you need to. Different movements, and different parts of the same movement, will give you very different ideas about the same problems, and that can be incredibly useful.
So I hope by now I’ve convinced you that not only is ableism about more than whether or not it’s a slur to say the word ‘stupid’, but it’s a vital part of understanding any other form of oppression you might face. I also hope I’ve given you enough places to start, that you can make a good start on finding any resources that might be useful to you in beginning to understand ableism and the experiences of disabled people in the world. And again, I guarantee that if you begin to truly understand what ableism is, you will find the concept useful in contexts you never dreamed of.
If you’ve made it this far, thank you for listening. I really appreciate it. Getting this idea out there means a whole lot to me, even the parts of it I’m not so sure I agree with. It’s stuff that someone needed to say, so I said it.
(1) I’m putting what would normally be an introduction, down as a footnote, just so it won’t distract from anything in the actual post. The post is far more important than the introduction. So here’s what I was going to write as an introduction:
This was an extremely difficult article for me to write. I understand the underlying idea easily enough. But to put it into words has taken me a long time, and a lot of effort. This is more abstract and intellectual than my posts tend to run.
But I felt like while a lot of disabled people alluded to this idea, nobody was expanding it enough for nondisabled people with no connection to the disability community to understand it. When I tried to tell people in short form, they assumed I was saying something totally different than what I was saying. So I developed these ideas until I could articulate them, and then over the past six months or so I have worked very hard at writing them down.
I still barely finished in time for Blogging Against Disablism Day, I wasn’t actually sure I could finish in time for Blogging Against Disablism Day. I’m still shocked that it’s happened at all. This was the original post I intended to write for BADD 2016, one that dealt with ableism as a whole rather than one particular disability experience.
I’m very relieved to have finished It, not least because I am always pigeonholed as an autism blogger, I don’t see myself as an autism blogger, and it’s frustrating to sometimes only be able to write posts that reference autism a lot. Autism is not my only disability. It’s not my central disability – I don’t exactly view myself as having one of those. It’s just a word that psychiatry coined for a bunch of people, tat’s become useful enough that I’ve felt compelled to use it in certain circumstances. But I find that even in disability contexts, hell even in contexts with other autistic people, the idea of autism begins to overshadow your personhood in a way that few other disability labels match in my experience. Nobody considers me a ‘myasthenia gravis blogger’ and writes about my entire life and all of my ideas as if they can be encapsulated by the idea of myasthenia gravis, but that’s exactly what people do with autism. I can write about things that have nothing whatsoever to do with autism and still get most of my responses back about autism. It’s kind of ridiculous but nobody questions it, not even most autistic people.
So this year I really wanted my post to be about something that could not be tied back to autism like that. I mean I’m sure somebody somewhere will try, but there’s nothing about this post that is even remotely autism-specific, unlike my other two contributions this year. There are lots of other posts I wish I could have made this year, but I’m going to rest happy knowing that I made this one post, at least.
And I hope that it can serve as a resource for people who are just beginning to learn about how ableism affects oppressed people who are not themselves disabled. Because it does, and it does so in specific, predictable ways that are pretty consistent across every form of oppression. And that’s important. And someone had to say all of this.
A lot of my posts in general seem to fall under the category of “I couldn’t find anyone saying the thing I wanted to find someone saying so I said it instead.” And this definitely falls into that category. There’s a lot of ideas contained within the post that I don’t even necessarily agree with, but that are necessary to the way the post is written. So this is very much not a personal post, and very much a post about a general idea that I think is important to communicate, even the parts of it that I don’t wholly agree with. What other people take out of it is their business, but I hope each person can find something useful there.