Ableism on the Left: Gender & Austerity in the Hostile Environment

In her second contribution on this issue, Ali Wilkin (Harmony Party UK interim media officer) confronts the issue of ableist language and the sometimes “hidden costs” of its careless use for those with disabilities.

Two sticks and some pretty, colourful stones lie together in damp sand.
Sticks and stones? While words don’t break bones, they can still do great harm.

“But attitudes towards disabled people have changed, those words/that phrase doesn’t mean the same thing anymore.”

In some form or other, a disabled person will hear this, a lot. From other disabled people too, and full disclosure: I used to think that about many of those words and phrases too. It isn’t comfortable to be confronted by your own prejudice, but denying it doesn’t make it go away.

Let me talk to you for a moment about what it is like to experience this as someone who was diagnosed with autism and learning disabilities at the age of 48, who was forced to confront a lot of my own internalised ableism, who has chronic anxiety, depression & c-PTSD, and who advocates for women and femmes with Borderline Personality Disorder diagnoses.

Yes – it is easy to think that things have improved. On the surface at least, it would appear to you that society is a lot more accepting of people like me (maybe you), who have limitations on what we can learn to do. Or at least, require going a very long way round (according to what is defined as ‘normal’) in order to be able to do a particular task, work out a particular issue, or process what we are feeling and/or experiencing.

But let me ask you to consider the following. You think that our institutionalisation stopped 40-50 years ago, and assume that the attitudes that lead to our institutionalisation ended with it. Except that it didn’t – autistic and learning-disabled children are still institutionalised, usually against their will and often the will of the family. I know an autistic boy who had to walk into school past other parents protesting at his presence in that school. That was only 20 years ago, and autistic children from low income families are still more likely to diagnosed with bad parenting than autism.

But more than that: hate crimes against disabled people have been on the increase, with the number rising by 12% between 2018 and 2019 to 6000 – 10 years ago, a government was elected in part because people were given scapegoats for the financial difficulties following the global financial crash in 2008 – and one of those scapegoats were disabled people.

It didn’t stop with cutting our incomes, or stripping away our social support services, or imposing poverty, or isolating us – it did so after leveraging every imaginable trope and prejudice, and the country has voted for that 3 times in the last 10 years.

In healthcare, women and femmes who present with chronic pain are routinely disbelieved, and for BAME women particularly this can have fatal results. In mental health care, women and femmes with trauma are diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder, and are by default assumed to be liars and manipulators. Psychiatrists are still taught “theory of mind” about autistic people, which posits that autistic people have no emotion, no interior sense of self and no ability to relate to other people.

The pandemic is further revealing that the same vile eugenics that drove austerity, drives this regime’s sickening response to the Covid pandemic – and reveals how very much alive and well the prejudices that inform the meaning of those words is.

When we fight austerity, we are fighting not just a financial policy, but the eugenics and ableism that are part of the ideological foundations of austerity. You cannot fight fire with fire – and it is not this regime that is harmed when people on the Left use ableist slurs against it, or each other.

The next time someone asks you not to use a certain word, and they take the time to explain to you why that word is harmful – listen. It is an act of hope over experience for someone to ask you not to use a certain or phrase.

It is the hope that one day we will never have to ask again.