25 July 2016

Ableism is not "bad words." It's violence.

Content/TW: Somewhat graphic discussion of violent attack on disabled people; discussion of S.V. (rape).

Ableism is not "bad words." It's violence.

Photo: A police officer outside the facility, speaking to onlookers, in this photo taken by Kyodo on 26 July 2016. 

Earlier today, a former employee of a residential institution in Sagamihara, Kanagawa Prefecture, Japan, for disabled people (from children through elders), many people with significant disabilities and multiply-disabled folks, attacked residents with a knife, murdering 19 people and wounding 25 people.

The Sagamihara attacker was targeting the disabled residents of the institution.

He told police, "I want to get rid of the disabled from this world."

Don't you ever fucking dare try to say, "but who could hate the disabled?" to me again.

Don't. Dare.

We are not some innocent angels untouched by the realities of the world around us.

We are not unaware or oblivious to the existence of others, let alone of hate.

We know hate and we know violence, because it is written on our bodies and our souls.

We bear it, heavy, wherever we go. Ableism is the violence in the clinic, in the waiting room, in the social welfare lines, in the classroom, in the recess yard, in the bedroom, in the prisons, in the streets. Ableism is the violence (and threat of violence) we live with each day.

Ableism is the constant apologetics for family members and caregivers who murder their disabled relatives -- they must have had it so hard, it must have been such a burden, you musn't judge unless you've walked in their shoes. (In the last few decades, more than 400 disabled people were murdered by relatives or caregivers, and those are only the stories we know about.)

Ableism is the fact that a police officer who shot an unarmed Black man with his hands up decided it made more sense to claim he was actually aiming for the Brown autistic man holding a toy truck beside the Black man.

Ableism is the fact that the left wants to talk about jails and prisons as the largest mental health care providers in the country, decry the crisis of incarceration of psych disabled people, and then suggest unironically that we build new facilities, new asylums, new institutions, new inpatient beds so that at least we can get "treatment."

Ableism is the fact that queer, trans, and asexual people fight so hard against medical neglect and abuse that in the rush to end pathologization of queerness, transness, and asexuality, we insist on distinguishing ourselves from anyone who is really mentally ill, saying that there's nothing wrong with us because we aren't those people, so at least we don't need medical and psychiatric surveillance, gatekeeping, and control (only they do). 

Ableism is the fact that when violence does happen to disabled people, it's framed as inherently more tragic and pitiable because we are supposed to be these innocent fucking angels, like babies (no matter how old we are), and it's particularly low to attack us (but apparently not to attack non-disabled transgender people or non-disabled Black people or non-disabled Muslims or non-disabled women -- all of that is totally okay and justifiable and besides, it must have been the victim's fault in some way).

Ableism is the fact that of developmentally disabled people categorized as women, anywhere from 83% to 90% will be sexually assaulted at least once in our lifetimes and on average at least ten times by the age of 18; the estimate for those categorized as men is almost 40%; all of these are likely severely underreported. Ableism is also the fact that when we do receive sex education, it often assumes that masturbation is the only "safe" option, and that anyone having sexual contact with a disabled person is automatically a fetishist or a predator or both. Rather than being about consent and autonomy, it's about "protecting us" or "keeping us safe" but where's the talk of victim blaming?

Ableism is the fact that anywhere from around 40% to 70% of U.S. prisoners are also disabled, and that the forces of white supremacy, racism, and capitalism that keep poor Black and Brown people in prisons are necessarily intertwined with ableist presuppositions about intelligence and emotional capacity. (And that all incarcerated people -- disabled or not -- as well as many free disabled people can be paid, completely legally, only a few cents per hour for menial labor, and that this is called opportunity and teaching work ethic.)

Ableism is the fact that it is totally legal to torture disabled people in the name of treatment and help and "for your own good" -- everywhere from the daily ABA torture sessions focused on normalization at the expense of our own mental health to the extremes of the Judge Rotenberg Center where we are shocked even for flapping or moving out of our seats.

Ableism is the fact that too many of my friends and online acquaintances are literally facing death, starvation, family separation, severe physical danger, denial of life-saving medical care, and other catastrophes right now, as I type these words, because they are disabled in a capitalist, racist world that does not want us to survive in it.

Ableism is the fact that on average, autistic people die 30 years younger than non-autistic people, with suicide as the second leading cause of death. As one friend put it, that's an act of murder by society, because it is so bad that too many of us decide that it is no longer worth trying to live in a world literally designed to destroy us from the moment we are first born.

They hate us, and we already know it. They aim for us. They mean to kill. They mean to harm. They know what they are doing, and we know it too. There can be no innocence, not for us. Ableism is not some arbitrary list of "bad words," as much as language is a tool of oppression. Ableism is violence, and it kills.


  1. Thanks for the article. I am mostly downplaying the effects ableism had on me, but this semester, I was overflowed by my past, by the stuff that I would not have space to talk before. Thanks, it helps me to get some orientation in my head, and to advocate more for my needs. I am a psychology student, DJ, and live with muscle dystrophy. I was called being lazy, beaten and called names.

    I am safe now, I just feel scared by the past, it is beyond okay. So i have a cappacity to process these issue and I am really glad you write about it.

  2. You left out "Ableism is prenatal tests done, not to help the family, but to kill disabiled people before they are born." Some believe we have less of a right to live!

    I'll also add "Ableism is writing anonymously due to fear that revealing a disability could doom one's career."

  3. Thanks to Lydia Brown for these words that spell out forms of social hate precipitated from the largest context to most minute. She exposes the degree to which so much of disabled peoples' lives -- the wasted time, the time spend sitting on a phone waiting for a paid supports person to answer, the invasive presence of police and other state surveillance workers in your home because someone decided to call about the fact that there were real live disabled people living next door, the conscious delay and deferral of medical and rehabilitative support equipment necessary to do anything -- all of these barriers are part of our pwds experience of slow death for they signal the stuff of micro-aggressions faced daily by disabled people. Cumulatively these daily hassles and humiliations are socially sanctioned forms of hate speech/acts that undermine the quality of every disabled person's life and well being. At the Democratic National Convention last night "the disabled" were mentioned once in Bernie Sanders speech and the disability advocate, Anastasia Somoza, had nothing but platitudes to speak about Hillary Clinton without any specificity to what is needed to improve lives for pwds. That is not really advocacy it's being used as an ad. Even when we talk about the expansion of healthcare no one is talking about the fact the Medicaid has adopted a standard of approving power wheelchairs that are suitable for "indoors only." That, too, is a form of state sponsored hate in the sense that a power wheelchair is intended to get one out into the world -- not to carry one from the toilet to the couch and back. This is a form of contemporary isolationism created by the healthcare industry that fails to reckon with the goal of sharing the world with disabled people and others. Ableism is the foundational grounding upon which these acts are produced as benign and helpful. Like the Japanese knife murder of pwds in a residential care facilities by a former employee, the violence so often comes from those placed in power over disabled peoples' lives. These non-normative bodies are their fiefdom and "the right live and let die" is the sovereign principle that lures so many to the cause of "care."

  4. I have fibromyalgia,noonans,and migraines that can cause memory loss. I also have high functioning Asperger's syndrome. So when I was sexually assaulted in pure daylight in a bus stop the police decided that it was just a misunderstanding.

    1. My heart breaks for you!!!

    2. That's horrible! >:(

      It would still be horrible even if the attacker had Asperger's himself (or he and his defense lawyer hired a doctor to diagnose him with it) and accused you of ableism for not consenting. >:(

  5. Great article. I was wondering where you found the statistic about the lifespan on autistic lives being on average 30 years shorter ?

    1. It's in the Karolinska study of March 2016.

      It is a Swedish population study that has been going since the 1970s.

      Here is some reporting.

      Autistic and intellectually disabled women in Sweden died at 39 years old.
      16 years less for intellectually disabled autistics - 12 years less for non-intellectually disabled autistics.
      Suicide + epilepsy were big factors.

      Mathieu Vaillancourt - the Independent
      It's no surprise

      Ian Johnston - why do so many autistic people die before 40?
      Why do so many autistic people die before 40?

      Emily Underwood [Science.com]
      Mentions the Bolte study

      Ian Sample - the Guardian
      18 March: the hidden crisis

    2. That's really tragic. I have Asperger's syndrome and I'm fifty three.

  6. I never came across the term "Ableism" before. Obviously I get the point. Nonetheless: attacking disabled people is particularly vicious, not because we are in any way better, but because many of us are less capable of defending themselves, depending on their condition. This goes all the more for mentally disabled people and is becoming infinitely more sinister here because a care giver is murdering those he is supposed to help and assist - those who possibly trusted him. The same would apply to, for example, a sergeant killing his cadets or a priest raping his altar boys. So on top of attacking defenseless people it's the violated trust that makes this crime so extremely repulsive and shocking, not mainly the fact that the victims were disabled.

  7. It's frightening to me how quickly this vanished from the news.

  8. I can't find the right place to comment on this, but I am requesting some modifications to your article on ablest language. I liked the article though, and I am glad I can comment here without being accused of being subhuman because I can't fill out a caption. Anyhow, The modifications I would like to see involve The description of the short bus and the reference to totally or partially blind people as visually limited. The thing about the short bus is that it was for anyone classified as special-education and was used to promote exclusion and deny opportunities. I was identified as intellectually gifted in school, but was made to ride the short bus because it was easier to put me on there instead of provide me appropriate orientation and mobility training to walk to the bus where the rest of my peers got on. I rode that bus isolated from my peers with special-education students from different schools, and I was often not picked up or brought to school late, and they would make me stay on the bus if no one was at home even when I was a legal 18-year-old. Other people who rode the bus wore diapers and were made to sit in their own excrement for several hours. The reason I have a problem with the term visually Limited is because like everybody else, I like to be defined by what I am and what I can do. I consider blindness just as worthy of a characteristic as site, and when you say visually Limited, it is like you are saying that site is worthy and blindness is not. For example, you would not call a transgender person sexually Limited, and African-American person ethnically Limited, or an autistic person neurologically Limited. Also, another metaphor you might want to include is when people say it's like the blind leading the blind. That's a big one for me because blind people do lead each other and it is very successful. Blind people thought for equality despite at first being denied the right to assemble, Developed training techniques, and men toward each other with no sighted people involved. Other than that, I thought the article was great, and I hope the people who call you the language police understand the recent and bloody history behind the words that they use.

  9. Ableism Isn’t Always Violent.

    In an article posted on Autistic Hoya on 25/07/2016, Lydia Brown makes the rather sweeping claim that “Ableism is not ‘bad words’. It’s violence.” Granted, it is true that much ableism is violent in action if not intent — including person-firsting, which amounts to verbal violence — but not all ableism meets the definition of violence, which requires directness of action. Below are a few examples of non-violent ableism.

    • Every time Adam Sandler puts on cripface in one of his too-stupid-to-be-funny ‘comedies’ or a producer hires a non-disabled actor to spack up as a person from a neurological minority, this is not violence.
    • Every time an author changes terms in a misguided attempt to better reflect the realities of the physical minority characters they write about, this is not violence.
    • Every time a feminist or a disability activist creates a list of ‘ableist terms’ without doing their research or (even better) consulting the people to whom those terms might apply or be applied, this is not violence.
    • Every time the staff of the Chesterfield branch of Wilko do not shut off the escalators whenever the lift packs up so that at least some crutches users can get between floors (and every time it takes more than a few days for the lift to be repaired), this is not violence.
    • Every time a supermarket does nothing about the piped music and bright lights that contribute to, and even trigger, autistic meltdowns (such as failing to make provision for one ‘autism-friendly shopping day’ a week), this is not violence.

    In fact, all these examples (and many others) show unthinking acts caused by the guilty parties’ non-neurological learning disorders rather than conscious decisions to abort a foetus on the basis that the child may have Down’s syndrome, to make the meeting of someone’s complex access needs conditional on something that the disabled person must do, or to spack up as an autistic person whilst playing the role of the Creation in a stage production of Frankenstein, and therefore do not meet the threshold of what can be considered violence.

    To conclude, although Lydia Brown has raised some important points in her blogpost, by also making the blanket statement that ‘ableism is violence’, she has implied that violence is always an element of ableism and, therefore, inadvertently helped to disguise the various forms of non-violent ableism that are committed every day by all classes of people, thus contributing to the erasure of disabled people’s realities in a world that is ableist by default.

    Copyright © 2016 Romersa’s Protégé. Individuals and groups are free to copy and share this work for all purposes except large scale distribution, subject to credit being given and any derivatives being released under the same or a similar licence. All other rights reserved.

    1. Sheogorath -- two quick things in response to this comment.

      (1) The argument you make depends on your definition of violence. I understand all of the examples you give as forms of violence. I do not define "violence" to only mean "causing physical injury." When someone passes me over for an opportunity because they assume someone else is more qualified to be an expert about autism than me as an actually autistic person, that is violence. When someone argues in my face that I should call myself a "person with autism," that is violence. When someone assumes that I'm basically a small child and can be talked to in a baby voice, that is violence.

      (2) If the bullet point about not consulting the groups affected by language when compiling a list of "ableist terms" was directed at me, you should know that I actually consult widely and frequently about the list on this website, and very often accept and incorporate new feedback and suggestions from people with specific disabilities / other disabled people. If it wasn't directed at me, then disregard this point.

    2. Yep, Sheogorath, everything you've just mentioned is violent, in a non-physical but very real sense. Not to mention that sensory overload actually can lead to physical injury, so it's violent even by a more limited, physical definition.

      Also, Lydia uses they/them pronouns, not she/her pronouns.


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