Pulling Ableism Out of Politics

Trigger warning: ableist language

Those who criticize politicians for their harmful stances toward the disability community are often the same people who use ableist language to refer to those politicians. It is good – and crucial – to criticize ideas, actions, and impacts. Meanwhile, it is problematic – and extremely harmful – to criticize people for inherent qualities (real or perceived).

When we refer to a politician’s ideas, actions, and impacts, we emphasize that we value their decisions. When we bring ableist language into the mix, we condone assigning value based on stereotyped perceptions of ability.

Words that have been used in the oppression of people with disabilities, such as “stupid” and “idiot,” and commentary on low intelligence are oft-heard today as insults. In fact, at least one article exists defending the use of ableist language because “we need insults in our language.” The author of that article not only thinks that words referring to ability are the only ways to criticize, but believes that idea fully enough to present it publicly. That willingness illustrates a prevailing misconception that views intelligence as a complete, straightforward, non-context-dependent measure of ability. It also implies that the ideas and perspectives of someone with a low IQ score should matter less than those with higher IQ scores. Unfortunately, that idea still contributes to the abuse of disabled people today. Moving toward a world that recognizes ability as a fluid, context-dependent, and vast category and that respects disabled people’s perspectives requires changing our language to communicate that idea.

Another example of ableist language in politics is the assertion that a person has a mental illness or personality disorder as evidence and a reason to not support a politician. First, asserting that someone has a mental illness on the basis of harm they are causing unfairly relates psychiatric diagnoses to that harm. In fact, many who qualify for psychiatric diagnoses will do no more harm in their lives than any other person, and many who do harm do not qualify for psychiatric diagnoses. Conflating these two variables ignores the reality that harm is perpetuated by beliefs and actions for which our society and its teachings should be held accountable, opting instead to scapegoat the disability community. Frustrations about “armchair diagnoses” aside, determining a person’s leadership potential on the basis of neurodivergence suggests (falsely) that people with certain forms of neurodiversity inherently lack the qualities necessary to be an effective leader. It suggests (again, falsely) that a person’s supports, context, knowledge, growth, and decisions have little influence on who they are and what they are capable of.

In a world of complex political discussions and rampant lack of accessible, complete information, a commitment to specific criticisms does the world a great service in its own right. Doing so directs focus to specific issues and community perspectives, allowing for richer and more impactful political discussions. In the movement toward a better world, that sounds like a win-win situation!