Trapped between the view that every single one of us is “inspirational” or “superhuman” for something as simple as buttering toast, and the dangerous myth that we’re scroungers sponging off the state with benefits claims, it’s hard for disabled people like me to simply exist.
It’s almost impossible for us to be passionate about what we believe in, because it goes against these two established stereotypes of what disability is supposed to look like.
When comedian Rosie Jones, who has ataxic cerebral palsy, appeared on Question Time on Thursday night to talk about how unsafe she feels as a gay, disabled woman, ableist trolls took to Twitter to mock how she was speaking, not what she was speaking about.
The belittling of disabled people’s concerns is something I too have witnessed. When the prime minister stood at the lectern in Downing Street for his daily briefings, no British Sign Language (BSL) interpreter was visible next to him.
Coronavirus information was inaccessible to Deaf people, but mentioning this led hearing people to point out, smugly, that subtitles were available – despite these not being accessible to sign language users either.
It took a High Court judge to rule that the government had broken the Equality Act for critics to be silenced.
Jones’ response to her abuse described the issue perfectly: “The sad thing is that I’m not surprised I’ve received tonight regarding my appearance on Question Time. It’s indicative of the country we live in right now. I will keep speaking up, in my wonderful voice, for what I believe in.”
Some may wonder if getting angry at disability discrimination is necessary, or indeed, productive. But if non-disabled people aren’t mocking disabled people for speaking their truth, then they’re asking them if they need to say it in such a direct manner. With a handful of exceptions, disabled people can’t say what they think about society’s inaccessibility – and it’s suffocating.
When I’ve called out hearing people teaching incorrect signs on Instagram, thus damaging the integrity of BSL, I’ve received comments claiming that my frustration at people bastardising an oppressed language will only deter people from learning sign in the future.
Ridiculous tone policing of marginalised voices only aims to weaken their impact, and make them more palatable to an unsettled, privileged majority.
Even if we try to cater to non-disabled people’s demands, and strike the correct “tone”, the response can still be exploitative and harmful. When a deaf man in New York couldn’t understand what a woman was saying to him, she threw a cup of boiling water at him and stabbed him, leaving the man with stab wounds to his chest and burns to his face and chest – according to the NYPD.
Whatever “mould” disabled people need to fit into to be able to advocate for ourselves effectively, it is fundamentally broken.
It’s on non-disabled people to sit with their feelings, question their prejudices, and to listen to our experiences. The argument adopted by the majority of disabled people – known as the social model of disability – is that it is society’s attitudes and infrastructure which disables us, rather than our conditions.
The abuse of Rosie Jones after her Question Time appearance is clear evidence of this, but her response shows that we’re going to continue speaking up about the barriers we face.
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