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


9 Responses  
  • Ableism on the Left is Still Ableism | writes:
    March 15th, 20132:51 pmat

    [...] Ableism on the Left is Still Ableism. [...]

  • Howard Moon writes:
    March 15th, 20132:58 pmat

    I totally agree. All too often the left unintentionally (or intentionally) forgets that acceptance needs to include everyone. The disabled or otherwise-abled are often the forgotten group, the group it is still OK to make fun of or blame. Those with mental illnesses are usually the last to be accepted.
    All we can do is continue to educate and advocate. Great post and great blog.

  • Lydia Brown writes:
    March 15th, 20133:14 pmat

    Yes. This.

    So many liberals and progressives are great on X, Y, and Z issues but epicly and fantastically FAIL when it comes to ableism. The hypocrisy would be laughable if it weren’t our LIVES at stake (literally).

  • Emily writes:
    March 15th, 20133:28 pmat

    Yes! I’ll never forget an elevator ride my first year as a graduate student when a peer criticized another student in the class by saying, “She’s classist and heterosexist, she’s so retarded!” I’ve always regretted not having the guts at the moment to call her out on the hypocrisy of the statement. Thank you for your post!

  • Marc Rosen - Co-editor of the Perspectives series writes:
    March 16th, 20131:19 pmat

    I’ve almost gotten expelled from school and risked arrest over confronting people on their ableist statements. The near-expulsion happened because when I called them ableist, I was accused of slandering my fellow students, and brought before a disciplinary hearing where the entire staff refused to acknowledge the ADA at all (I had to remind them about my words being protected speech as well, and that it’s only slander when you lie). As for almost getting arrested, I tried to educate a cop.

  • Betty Tisel writes:
    March 16th, 20132:16 pmat

    Hi! can you subscribe me to your blog, so that I receive notifcations by email when you post? Thank you. – Betty

    • Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg writes:
      March 16th, 20132:49 pmat

      Hi Betty,

      I don’t have subscribers, but I have a Facebook page on which I notify my readers of new posts. If you click Like, you’ll get the notifications.

  • Kim Wombles writes:
    March 16th, 20133:58 pmat

    Added to my list of must-read articles on disability for my comp 1 students.

  • cate writes:
    April 8th, 20132:17 amat

    Feminist argument is not simply voicing the grievance Empowerment is success.It lies in catalysing the change.To do so – it must speak clearly the change it wants to bring about.Ablism/Disablism etc. categorises social oppression in ways which are arbitrary and artificial, and is proving extremely dammaging and divisive as a model for socail change.Ablism/Disabilism an adversarial model -it identifies with a dominant/minority power dynamic, and seeds conflict, resentment and insecurity amongst women and men alike. Feminism is a political tool -. Personal security – is part of the package or baggage of social cohesion, social change and personal well being. The economy is biting, the divisions are marked and models which portray scroungers,pit women against women, mark the have against the have not – will not make for a future of health and social security of for a woman her family or her nation .(courtesy of Malcolm X – . Political activism has an accent. and constructive proactive solutions are URGENTLY needed -F work is social motherhood and the efficient mother is the archetype for social justice and family sustenance, which are the root of the personal and social welfare for is ongoing

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