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What is ableism – and what isn’t?

The most frustrating thing about disability is the way people just refuse to recognise the issues my community faces

James Moore
Saturday 11 February 2023 13:29 GMT
BA passenger's wheelchair 'broken' by airline staff during flight

Trouble at work? Try putting on my shoes. Only one in every two disabled people has a job, and while I’m fortunately one of them, I do have something of a problem. My editor is a raging ableist (she’s not really – but allow me to explain).

J’accuse Victoria Richards. If I get my wheelchair’s tyres slashed next time I come into the office, I’m looking at you.

At this point you’re probably wondering what on earth is going on. I shall explain: this column is about ableism – prejudice against disabled people like me. The everyday nastiness, contempt and lack of consideration we endure.

Twitter has judged my editor guilty of it. You may have guessed Twitter’s involvement – willful misinterpretation, as usual.

Victoria’s “sin” was to tweet that the best time to pitch to her if you’re wanting to write about that day’s breaking news is between 7am and 8am.

The intention was to be helpful, which was a schoolgirl error. You should never, ever try being helpful on Twitter. It is a place that serves to distill and then spit out every dark thought humanity has ever had.

A torrent of criticism ensued. Among the critics were a number of disabled writers, outraged at the suggested time of day and turnaround for filing copy (two hours, though that's not a rule – just a “dream” scenario, as she said in her tweet) leading to the accusation of “ableism” levied against her.

Here’s the point I suppose some were trying to make: when you’re in an abusive relationship with your body – as many of us are – it sets the time for you. My medical conditions, for example, make sleep very difficult. I’m often up at 3am, sometimes later. So, I sympathise with those for whom that particular pitching window (one of many, might I add) doesn’t work.

However, there was no ableism evident, or intended, because (as Victoria made clear) it’s not the only time you can pitch.

That said, I can also understand why those writers were so (perhaps overly) sensitive.

The sad fact is, ableism is everywhere. It is one of the small number of nasties that are still almost socially acceptable. It is rarely discussed and commented upon. Politicians ignore it, when they don’t actively indulge in it (which they often do). Even the terminally “right on” tend to shrug when they see it in front of them.

It is still, apparently, acceptable to abuse disabled people in the street. This “sin of commission” is a frighteningly regular occurrence. I can think of three times in the last month that it has happened to me.

Local authorities regularly use dirty tricks to soak disabled people in fines. Or they shut us out of communal spaces or town centres. Derogatory terms are frequently heard and excused.

Sins of omission – the more subtle, insidious sort prejudice – are even more common. There are still shops you can’t get into. Getting accessible tickets for shows can be very awkward. Staff still look through you in cafes, expecting your partner to order for you. The old “he’ll have sugar with that”.

Recruiters see the wheelchair, cane, or hearing aid, and put the CV of the applicant making use of them on the fire. Actors deprive their disabled peers of roles by cripping-up (on those rare occasions when writers and/or directors remember some people don’t have the perfectly functioning bodies of Greek gods).

To get support to live one’s life, the government demands the completion of the paper equivalent of a military assault course. The media mostly ignores our issues, unless there’s a controversy involving a Paralympian or one of the BBC’s handful of prominent disabled journalists. And so it goes on.

The worthy Ms Richards is a rare exception. She lets me write about this stuff. She puts up with my copy and remains breezily upbeat even in the face of my occasional bouts of surliness – the inevitable consequence of living with chronic pain and short bursts of disrupted sleep.

For me, it’s a godsend. Writing columns like this is cathartic. It’s my prozac. I’m not kidding. The most frustrating thing about disability is the way people just refuse to recognise the issues my community faces. Even when you explain, they either look right through you or shrug their shoulders and metaphorically give you the finger. Working with someone who doesn’t do that is quite rare.

So while I disagree with Victoria’s Twitter critics, I also understand where they are coming from. Ableism is so horribly common it can make people hypersensitive. Including me. My wife once told me the office staff at my kids’ previous school were intimidated by me. I was mortified. Fortunately, she was able to explain: I’ve had so many problems, dealt with so much grief in the past, I always expect more. So I habitually react, not aggressively, but defensively. Now I know that, I try not to (though not always successfully).

The “angry disabled person” has become a societal trope. But we have every right to be angry. This means people sometimes maybe see ableism when it’s not intended.

In the case of my editor, it wasn’t. Disabled writers: if the pitch passes muster – and the writing does too – you’ll be alright.

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