The many violences of ableism

I’ve not usually had to add content warnings to my posts, but in this session we discussed death, dying, suicide and genocide. Not only is that a lot to cover in an hour, it’s also quite heavygoing.

Friday 15th marked the last Science and Disability reading group of the decade. To be fair, this isn’t actually that momentous, as the last one was also in 2019. But it was great to see more people turning up and to see the group taking off.

We read the amazing, blistering, powerful essay by Imani Barbarin, Ableism Isn’t Nonviolent – You’re Killing Us. It’s a sharp reminder that disabled lives have value in a world that tells us disabled lives are to be thrown away.

One of the most striking parts of the essay describes a disabled girl being thrown a farewell party as she chooses to die. I admit to not being very good about talking about assisted dying: it’s a contentious issue among disabled people, because while we should be able to die with dignity, having our lives consistently treated as valueless and burdensome makes it that much easier to pressure us into death. It’s something I struggle with.

Even as we talk about assisted dying we should also be talking about disabled people being forced into death. Disabled people are consistently unemployed and underemployed relative to our abled counterparts. We earn less than abled people, in some cases working for free despite the fact that abled counterparts would have been paid. If we try to apply for disability benefits, the system is stacked against us, from the intimidating forms you have to fill in to assessments that can and will use anything against you to find you fit for work. People in comas have been found fit to work. People who cried from the pressure put on them by assessors have been told that wiping away their tears shows they have use of their hands. Terminally ill people have been declared fit to work. People have died from not being able to eat, from not being able to leave the house, from taking their own lives because the system is unnavigable.

We have a situation where murdering disabled people is an everyday occurrence, but assisted dying is unthinkable. That can’t be right. Nor is it right that most of the stories told about disabled people are the ones where we die. The stories where we fight back and live are difficult to find, unpalatable, even dangerous to tell because then an assessor could realise what happens, told chiefly by working-class disabled people in ways that don’t register to an abled and affluent middle class. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t tell stories where disabled people die; I’m saying that the stories where disabled people live are systematically hidden.

It was a grim way to end 2019, so we talked about some of the ways that abled and disabled people can work together to resist ableist structures. That’s several books all on its own, but what it really boils down to is listening to disabled people, treating our experiences as accurate and our lives as valuable.

It seems like a wishy-washy sort of change to make – like thinking that positive thinking and self-care can change the world on their own. But it’s the core of all disability justice.

It all starts with our lives deserving resistance against violence.

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