Allegations of ableism are prone to misuse

A few months ago, whilst trawling down my news feed, I came across a not uncommon debate between two of my Facebook friends. The pair were arguing about the merits and shortcomings of a Prime Minister, when one concluded that the politician in question had “crippled” their country’s industry. The debate itself ended here, with the user of the word “crippled” being branded as an ‘ableist’ – a name for someone who discriminates against people with disabilities. Without an explanation of why the word was wrong, they were then asked why they had chosen such an inappropriate phrase. The complainant then shifted the debate from its original starting point on to the subject of ableism, presumably leaving the user embarrassed, and perhaps confused.

Whether or not one believes the word “crippled” to have ableist connotations in this context, the way the user was ridiculed and chastised for the phrase was unproductive, and a display of self-righteous, moral aggrandizement from the party condemning them, with the primary aim of political point scoring. Whilst there is merit in drawing attention to ableist words that could potentially be offensive, suggesting that someone is genuinely demonstrating prejudicial preference for able-bodied people because they have used diction that has been taught to be commonplace and inoffensive throughout childhood and school, is ludicrous.

Sadly, this kind of public condemnation is not rare. All over online forums, social media websites, and political hustings, one can regularly see people being identified as ‘ableist bullies’ for using words such as “crazy”, “bonkers” and “mad”. Although people should be called out for using words when they are offensive, recognition and correction is where the process should end, whereas in many cases, the reprimander is simply deploying the user’s lesser knowledge of political semantics as a debating tool. This is not the most effective way of getting rid of ableist language from people’s vocabulary, and will undoubtedly, frighten and deter the less experienced from engaging in political debate.

During the summer of 2014, I worked as an intern at Glasgow mental health charity Theatre Nemo. Whilst I was working in the office, a member of the public came in to enquire about a scheme the charity was running. They were late, and announced to the room that the traffic was “crazily busy”, due to the Commonwealth Games.  As opposed to the onslaught I expected, and after a brief discussion of the word’s potential connotations, the Chief Executive, Isabel said words to the effect of: “Don’t worry, I appreciate that you didn’t mean that, and I know the word is often used casually in everyday speech”. The intended message was conveyed, and the visitor left the office without feeling ashamed – this, one must think, is the perfect result.

If one really cares about stopping the use of offensive, ableist language, then the important part of any process is education, and getting people to avoid using such language in the future so that they do not offend again. For some, it appears that calling out ableist language is more a method of demonstrating a greater knowledge of political correctness, and shaming the less well versed. This will only lead to less political involvement; surely this is not the desired outcome?

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