Last week I discovered that the 3rd December is now officially the United Nations’ International Day of Persons with Disabilities. “Oh”, I thought as I scrolled through a Twitter feed made up of posts by various disability groups celebrating the occasion, “we’ve got our own day”. This was a rather interesting prospect; after all, it is not often that I consider disability something to celebrate. More importantly, I am not used to seeing disability issues enjoying the limelight—normally Twitter accounts like EverydaySexism or Amnesty International are more likely to catch my eye—and this saddens me. If, like me, you believe that discrimination is the result of ignorance, the way to combat it is to shout your message from the rooftops. Or, these days, dominate the social media landscape.
But to do that you need an easily definable force to fight against. Women have sexism, ethnic minorities have racism, members of the LGBTQA community have homophobia and transphobia, disabled people have… nothing. We are in many ways the forgotten minority.
I’ve been interested in disability rights for much of my life, and have been actively involved in campaigning for equality for the past two years. And yet, I still don’t know what it is I am fighting, besides a vague amalgamation of things which make me angry; a lack of employment opportunities, or voting rights, or social inclusion—you name it, disabled people probably need more of it. As I have discussed these issues with almost everyone—friends, tutors and unfortunate members of the public—I have hankered for a word that encapsulates all of this; an “ism” of our own.
This would be useful not least because I have a speech impediment, and when it comes to people who are unfamiliar with my voice, the fewer words the better. “Discrimination on the grounds of disability” is not a phrase I can say with ease.
What we should call it then? There has been some debate within the civil rights community over whether to use “ableism” or “disableism”. For what it’s worth, I think the latter is preferable—it is explicit in its meaning and will raise fewer eyebrows. However, a new Twitter account—modelled on EverydaySexism and named EverydayAbleism—is doing fairly well. Its authors recently managed to get the hashtag #HeardWhileDisabled to trend in the UK, on which disabled users post patronising or offensive statements they have overheard, providing a much-needed and far-reaching wake-up call. So maybe “ableism” will win out.
No matter. The point is that, whatever the word, it will help disabled people face down the challenges before us. As I read all the messages about the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, one thought trumped all others: we have come far, there is a long way to go, but recognition is a momentous sign of progress.