The Forgotten -ism: How Disabled People Are Forgotten

Disabled symbol on a cracked pavement

What’s missing from this tweet calling for recommendations for diverse panelists?

When you report an offensive tweet, what is missing here?

Disabled people being left out of activism

Which group only gets a fleeting mention in Lady Gaga’s iconic Born This Way?

In Laurie Penny’s Unspeakable Things, which minority is mentioned just twice, the first mention being on page 44 out of 300? In Caroline Criado-Perez’s Do It Like a Woman, which group only gets a mention two thirds of the way in? Which oppressed group gets less air time than any other in Laura Bates’ Everyday Sexism and Girl Up?

American Civil Rights activist, Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, coined the word ‘intersectionality’. Although it was coined in specific relation to black women and the way they experience misogyny, it refers to all the ways oppressed identities overlap. This includes sex, gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, culture, class, and disability.

Yet, as we can see from the examples above, disability is the identity most often left out of discussions around activism and social justice–when in reality, it’s the one that often requires the most thought.

Thinking about disability and access doesn’t come naturally to those with abled privilege. Just as I, a white woman, am not instinctually thinking of the challenges facing women of colour in my day-to-day life, abled people don’t notice that cobbles present challenges to mobility aids; that emergency pull cords in disabled toilets are often tied out of reach; that many people need a hearing loop to get by.

But when you leave disabled people and their access requirements out of your activism, you are excluding them from your world in a way you would never dream of excluding other oppressed groups. You’re not just leaving them out of the conversation–you’re physically excluding them from spaces.

“If a disabled person is excluded from an event, they cannot even make it into the building. They are left voiceless and powerless.”

Fifty one percent of people in a recent Twitter survey said that they had to specifically ask a venue about their access information.

Of those, only 44% got a satisfactory answer. At least one person reported they had received what they thought was a satisfactory answer, but it turned out to be false information.

Eleven percent of those who had to ask about access information were attending a feminist or other equality-related event. Just let that sink in.

The law says that ‘reasonable adjustments’ must be provided for disabled people, but if you have to badger someone to get that information, are those adjustments really being provided?

Recently, I attended a gig at The Old Courts in Wigan. Not only is the venue not wheelchair accessible, but there are also no provisions for those who can walk but not stand–except, of course, the instruction to sit down on chairs at the back where you can’t see the performance.

Earlier this year, easyHotel by easyJet had listed on their website that accessible rooms with a higher price tag–as if having a room that actually meets your needs as a person is an extra luxury that you should pay for.

Travelling on a London bus just after Easter weekend, I witnessed a driver telling a wheelchair user to ‘just get the next bus’ when the wheelchair space was occupied by a pram, despite the recent Paulley ruling saying that drivers must to more than just ask pushchairs to move (and he didn’t even do that).

When Twitter user, @KirstySEmanuel, tried to obtain accessibility information for a potential wedding venue, she was told they’d discuss it with her when they met, as though it were negotiable.

In the age of Twitter, challenging venues and individuals on their lack of accessibility is somewhat easy. You can tweet and tap your way to the bottom of an issue. But in the days before social media, making a stand when wasn’t so easy.

If an event excludes people of colour, a person of colour can often go to that event and protest (although, of course, this is not always a safe option). But if a disabled person is excluded from an event because the organisers simply didn’t take accessibility into account, they cannot even make it into the building. They are left voiceless and powerless–even by those who claim to care most about equality and inclusion.

Ableism really is the forgotten –ism.

Venues and organisers often justify this lack of accessibility by saying ‘disabled people just don’t come to our events’–but have they ever stopped to think that disabled people aren’t coming to their events because it is physically impossible for them to do so?

It’s a vicious cycle, and it’s one we must break if we claim to care about intersectionality and true equality.

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