Ableism On The Left Is Still Ableism
March 15th, 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

If you consider yourself politically progressive, chances are that you firmly believe that racism, classism, misogyny, homophobia, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and all other forms of bigotry have no place in political discourse or civil society. As a fellow progressive, I wholeheartedly agree.

So why, oh why, is ableism perfectly fine with you? Why, oh why, do you find it perfectly all right to engage in bigotry against disabled people for the purpose of your political agenda?

May I share a representative example? Consider the following graphic, which was posted to a Facebook page called The Republican Party- Is Corruption, Greed & Lies and The Real Evil Empire.

Source: Facebook [The graphic consists of a black-and-white photograph of former president Ronald Reagan sitting with one foot resting on a round table. The table has two stacks of paper on it; some of the pages are draped over the stacks. Behind him is the front of a house and two leafy trees. The text reads: “Closed Down Mental Institutions. Got Shot by Nutjob. Karma.”]

Now, for what it’s worth, I’m willing to believe that you mean no harm. I’m willing to believe that, despite your progressive credentials, you are blissfully unaware of the bigotry you carry against disabled people. In fact, I am more than willing to believe that, despite your progressive credentials, you have no idea what ableism is.

Allow me enlighten you.

Ableism is the belief that nondisabled people are worthier human beings than disabled people. Ableism is the belief that nondisabled people should have a different set of rights than disabled people. Ableism is the belief that disabled people should be segregated, patronized, sneered at, laughed at, abused, and dismissed.

But it’s more than a belief. It plays itself out in systemic injustices — in high rates of unemployment, in high rates of poverty, and in high rates of abuse. It plays itself out in exclusion — social exclusion, economic exclusion, and architectural exclusion. It plays itself out daily in the ways in which disabled people become metaphors for social ills and our culture’s deepest fears.

In others words, it plays itself out just as any other form of bigotry plays itself out — as a series of assumptions, as a set of structural inequities, and as a barrage of microaggressions that take place every hour of every day. And as is true for any other form of bigotry, engaging in ableism while meaning no harm is not a defense against actually doing it.

The graphic you posted is ableist. Why?

Because calling a mentally ill person a nutjob is ableist.

Because implying that mentally people are all violent offenders is ableist.

Because suggesting that mentally ill people who have committed no crime should be incarcerated is ableist.

Because allowing comments in response to this graphic like “Ooh! Ooh! I’ve got one! What’s Reagan’s favorite vegetable? James Brady!” without calling them out is ableist.

Wake up, my fellow progressives. You can’t root out bigotry in this world while engaging in it. You ought to know that.

© 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

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