Ableism in social justice culture


As a warning, this post will probably be considered controversial by some.  I also want to make the caveat that I live in America and have not lived in any other country, so this post will only speak to America.

It may come as a surprise that social justice, with its emphasis on the creation and maintenance of “safe spaces” and advocating for the rights of marginalized groups, would have ableism essentially built into the culture of many of its communities.  However, I have noticed this a great deal, to the point that despite being politically progressive and an activist myself, I often feel more emotionally safe in apolitical circles.  Most social justice activists would not have any doubt that ableism is real or that people with disabilities should be included as a “marginalized group” whose rights we should consider and work toward.  The issue is not in intent, but follow-through.  Unless it is a specifically disability-focused circle or formal group (such as Icarus and Autistic Self-Advocacy Network), people with disabilities are often left out of the discussion and consideration.  Here’s why I say this:

Vilifying “big pharma”

I am all for critiquing America’s healthcare system in general, including “big pharma” and its large influence on healthcare.  People are often medicated when they don’t need to be, because of this influence and because normal emotions and behaviors are pathologized, and many providers wouldn’t even consider suggesting “natural” options (such as supplements and lifestyle changes).  I believe that because many prescription medications are addictive and have side-effects, these natural options (in addition to therapies and other non-medical treatments) should be tried first, and medication should be considered a last resort unless it’s a condition that automatically requires medication.

However, conditions that automatically require medication (sometimes even just to stay alive) do exist.  Also, many people have exhausted all other options, with little or no success, and find that medication is the only thing that makes a significant difference.  Some people may be able to eventually live without meds, but need them temporarily to be able to reach that point, because their symptoms were so severe that they were unable to effectively participate in non-medical or alternative treatment.  When the discussion moves beyond critique to outright vilifying, these people are lumped in with the “enemy” and often judged and shamed for getting the treatment they need to survive, function, and be happy and well.

More on this:  Can we talk about big pharma without alienating disabled people?

Words as the most important unit of respect

This (like everything else in this list) may not be true in every social justice circle, but what I’ve personally noticed both in my geographic area and online is that a great deal of importance is placed on the words people use, sometimes to the point of this being more important than actions or underlying beliefs.  Certain words and phrases are considered respectful while others are considered a sign of moral failure, and people who use the latter (whether or not they were even aware of their unacceptability) are often treated poorly with little explanation as to what they did that caused this reaction.

Though I’m focusing mostly on ableism in this entry, I do consider this both ableist and classist.  There are a multitude of legitimate reasons (that have nothing to do with morality) why someone may not be able to keep up with what words are ok to say and not (which also does change over time, sometimes at a rapid pace).  They may not have had the opportunity for a good education, in combination with lacking access and/or ability to do independent research.  (They might for instance have a learning or intellectual disability that gets in the way of reading comprehension and/or finding appropriate resources, they might not live in a neighborhood with a library or be able to afford to buy books or magazines, they might not have Internet access at home.)  Learning and intellectual disabilities can also affect memory, which may include remembering which words are ok to say and not (especially as this changes over time).

Autism and some other developmental disabilities affect social and communication skills.  How this manifests of course varies from person to person, so not all autistic individuals have trouble in this area.  However for some, so much concentration and effort needs to be devoted to things such as making eye contact and forming complete and intelligible sentences that little is left for choosing the best words for the situation.  Also, some autistic people as well as people with other disabilities (and even some neurotypical people) communicate better, or entirely, by nonverbal means.  These other means of communication (such as AAC, body language, facial expression, hand gestures, images etc) are all valid and effective, and to consider them less so than words is ableist.

All this is not to say that we should throw in the towel and allow people to continue to use slurs and other disrespectful and inappropriate words.  However, if we try to fight fire with fire, we are likely to completely lose a lot of people, who will then go on to avoid social justice circles and continue using the offensive words.  What I suggest is education:  either explaining (in a patient manner) why the word is offensive and what to say instead, or if one does not have spoons for that in the moment (or ever, which is ok too…nobody should be obligated to be an activist or educator), pointing them in the direction of helpful resources.  If even that takes too much time and energy, then just ignoring and avoiding them.

Conflating intelligence with morality

Many in the disability rights and neurodiversity communities consider the concept of intelligence itself to be ableist.  “Intelligence”, as defined by such measures as IQ tests, is not just describing one’s knowledge base and ability to think and problem-solve.  That alone would be ok to define (although it would still be problematic to tie it to morality, since there are plenty of moral people who struggle with these skills, often again because of learning or intellectual or developmental disabilities).  However, typically when someone talks about intelligence, they are referring to a very specific way of learning and thinking and problem-solving.  Other ways of doing these things, regardless of their effectiveness, are undervalued or perhaps even dismissed entirely.  It is also dismissed when a person is able to effectively do these things, but then cannot prove their awareness through verbal means.

More on this:  Ableist Word Profile: Intelligence

Pushing people to do more than they can or is healthy for them

This can be a problem in activist communities overall (including, for instance, environmental and animal rights activism), not just social justice.  Some activists pressure everyone involved in activism to be very active in it, and judge and shame and guilt-trip them if they are not.  Besides that there are plenty of valid reasons why non-disabled people might not be able to be especially active themselves (lack of time, money, energy etc), disabled people have the added issue of needing more healthcare and having fewer “spoons” (emotional and physical energy) than non-disabled people as a general rule.  Healthcare and recovery can take a lot of time, energy, and resources that could otherwise go toward activism; disabled people should not be made to feel bad for this as it is not within their control.  Also, some activist actions require specific skills and abilities that not everyone has.  (For instance, a march requires the ability to walk for an extended period of time and the ability to tolerate crowds and loud noises.  Online activism, aside from adding your name to virtual petitions, generally requires the ability to be articulate in writing.)  This is not to say that people with disabilities (even severe ones) can’t be active activists, just that they need to choose actions that are well-suited for their abilities and sometimes will need to say no even to things they really care about.

Activists with disabilities (as well as non-disabled activists who can’t do everything they want to do for whatever reason) often already feel guilty about their limitations, so judgment is supremely unhelpful.  People cannot be shamed into changing.  However, if your intention in pushing people to do more is not to judge but rather to help them become more involved, there are things you can do that are not ableist (or classist or whatever else) and will not make people feel bad in the process.  If you are an organizer you can work to make your actions accessible to more people, for instance by…  finding a place to hold a rally where people can sit down if they need to and has limited noise pollution; organizing a wide variety of different types of actions (petitions, protests, Twitter blasts, conferences, zines and performance and visual art, speeches etc); holding events on weekends or in the evening to not interfere with full-time employment and/or doctors’ appointments; using technology to include people who can’t be at an event in-person (live-Tweeting, conference calls, Google Plus video chat hangouts, photographs and video recording etc); providing financial assistance for events that cost money to participate or for people to come from a long distance; and also just asking people what would help them be more involved.

Discouraging people from asking questions

Seeing as ignorance is harshly judged in social justice culture, dissuading people from asking questions leaves many disabled people stuck between a rock and a hard place.  As I said above, people with certain kinds of disabilities (as well as financial or time-related limitations) are not able to do much (if any) independent research.  They may be able to take classes at a university or adult education or community center, if they’re able to find teachers who understand their situation and accommodate it, but this is not an option for everyone.  For some people, asking questions may need to be their primary or even only way to learn.  Because of this, if they are discouraged from asking questions or judged for it, they will continue to be ignorant about some things (since nobody is born knowing everything or taught everything by school or their families or friends), which also will be met with judgment and sometimes exclusion.

Again, it is ok to not want (or be able) to be the person who educates a particular ignorant person.  Referring them to others or a reading or video is perfectly acceptable, and even if you can’t do that, simply letting them know that you can’t or don’t feel like answering their question is also fine.  As long as they are not discouraged from continuing to ask questions about things that they’re curious about, they’ll probably eventually find someone to help them.

“The tone argument” and other forms of “derailing”

In case you’re not aware, the “tone argument”, according to Geek Feminism Wiki, is the argument that social justice activists “would be more successful if they expressed themselves in a more pleasant tone”.  (  This is looked down upon by social justice activists themselves because it focuses on the tone rather than the content, sometimes to the point of purposefully ignoring or distracting from the content.  It is considered a type of “derailment” (, which is more-or-less another word for a tangent, specifically when a person being made aware of something offensive they said or did changes the subject rather than acknowledging the offense.

I do believe these are real things that are sometimes used purposefully in order to avoid responsibility for one’s actions.  A person being told they did something wrong may not want to believe or acknowledge this or make the effort to change, so instead deflects back on the other person (tone argument) or uses some other tactic of shifting to another topic (derailment).  Although this might not always be purposeful, it still allows the person to avoid taking responsibility for their actions or improving their ability to treat others with respect, so regardless of intent, it is still something that people should try to avoid.

On the other hand, not all people who request a change in tone or subject do so in order to avoid changing or taking responsibility for their actions.  People who communicate best nonverbally use tone as a primary means of understanding what others are trying to say.  As such, an offensive tone is as difficult for them to tolerate as offensive words are to people who communicate mostly verbally.  Also, if the tone doesn’t go with the meaning behind the words, misunderstandings can very easily occur.  What may seem like an attempt to censor may simply be confusion and an attempt to understand so that they may best be able to apply the request.

As for derailment in general, a lot of people just have a poor attention span due to ADHD or LD or similar.  Alternatively, they may be paying attention but have circular (rather than linear) thinking, which means that they make sense of things by connecting topics to other topics.  This can again be due to ADHD or LD.  It is not necessarily a problem (most often, it is simply a different way of thinking than the norm), but it does mean that they need to be allowed to connect topics to other topics in order to arrive at an understanding of them.  So what seems like derailment may actually be a sign of active listening.

If people legitimately do things that are offensive, and are not at all open to change, then they should not be allowed to get away with it.  People who are open to change need to be educated.  However, not all actions actually are what they seem to be on the surface.  The person you are talking to may in fact have an invisible disability, and are behaving in the only way they can or that makes sense with the way their brain works.  As such it’s important to give the benefit of the doubt.  Valuing some ways of perceiving and interacting with the world more than others, unless it is legitimately cruel, is ableist.  Society thrives on diversity.

9 responses »

    • Thanks! 😀 I’m glad you appreciated this. I was kind of nervous posting it because it goes against a lot of beliefs I’ve heard from fellow progressive activist types, heh. =/ However I think it’s important to have multiple viewpoints out there for people to consider, and to not stay silent on issues such as ableism just because people might disagree with you.

      • Thank you for your wonderful post, I was placed in horrible situations of being accused of various things due to the fact that I cannot do crowds, noise or had people cut me off in the middle of sentences to make assumptions. Example:
        I say: I do not read (cut off) people well.
        other person: you are lying to me, you are taking advantage of people who cannot read with your lying, etc.

        I cannot be in noisey places = I am a racist, etc.

        I am slow and distracted due to TBIs and concussions. I have been assaulted and even told that I am a homophobe by a straight coworker who has a gay friend so knows what a real queer person is and apparently is the authority on my sexuality and gender. I guess I am unaware of my own sexuality/gender, because how can I even be disabled and queer at the same time! LOL!

      • Ugh…yeah, I can relate, and sorry you had to deal with that. =/ I’ve found social justice circles in general to not be particularly disability-friendly, disability justice aside. x.x

  1. Reblogged this on Eaarth Animist and commented:
    PLEASE if you do any community work, any activism, of any kind, PLEASE read this. If you are differently abled, also PLEASE read this, because few differently abled persons I have met understand how oppressed we are.

  2. Pingback: Sunday links, 12/15/13 | Tutus And Tiny Hats

  3. Pingback: Solidarity Is For The Able Bodied – Ableism | Baking, Butter, & Happiness

  4. Um, wow. Thank you. Thank you for articulating one of my major criticisms of the social justice community. Of which I am and have been involved in and been shamed or had my opinions rendered invalid due to speaking or typing in a different manner.

    Re: derailing/comparing something I don’t know to something I do, is actually in fact my way of learning. Its not avoidance at all and sometimes my brain does circular thinking. I try to stay on topic but sometimes I just can’t without finding something else to compare it too. My attention span goes back and forth.

    The tone argument has NEVER sat well with me because, equally, as a trauma/verbal abuse/ptsd survivor, having someone repeatedly shame you or showcase anger (albiet justified as absolutely marginalized peoples are sick of being hurt, I have reacted similarly). I get why they are, but its not helpful at all to brush it off as an excuse when in reality it could/does trigger severe emotional reactions, panic attacks etc in myself and many others. I’ve often come up short trying to explain this.

    Equally, I’ve seen many critique of brushing off internet activism as ableist for the very reasons you point out (extremely true), but the same folks turn around and accuse those who ask questions or are curious (i.e what certain terminology means) in rude ways, like “Use Google and stop being lazy!” I understand of course that sometimes people feel entitled to an answer, and its equally triggering or frustrating for a marginalized person to educate others. But some flat out refuse to believe that someone will have a learning disability and actually might need help.

    I have indeed self educated, but the truth is my mild learning disabilities often makes it hard for me to grasp a word or concept immediately. Many a time I have to read over and over or have someone explain to me in laymen’s terms before I fully understand the meaning. It took me legitimately months to a year just to understand the meaning of oft-used words (i.e binary, heteronormative, etc). I still fully don’t understand many concepts, though I try, but often to the point of emotional exhaustion if I can’t get it or someone refuses to help.

    In short, thank you for finally putting into words something I’ve tried to explain so many times. Fighting ableism in sj circles is so much more than just eradictating certain words (just as important, but often remains the sole focus).

    Ditto for the assumption that everyone has had the same level of education or access to it. The fact that so many are blind to how classist this is astounds me.

    Just, thank you.

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