Ableism In Four Words.

Social media is often portrayed as a toxic environment full of lies & fake news, & frankly, it’s a reputation well-earned. However, it also has the power to reach millions of people across the globe, & when you have a message that needs to be heard, it is a useful tool.

A lot of my social media content focuses on ableism, contains a colourful array of language that would make a marine jealous, & for some strange reason over 10,000 people think it’s worth following. However, compared to the juggernauts of Twitter I cause only the most miniscule of ripples.

That was until an unassuming Monday morning at the start of February, when I was trundling along into the office & had an idea. As I was waiting for my computer to switch on, I crafted a handful of tweets all using the hashtag #AbleismInFourWords.

Very soon tweets using my hashtag began to appear on my feed.

By the end of the working day, quite unbelievably, #AbleismInFourWords was somehow trending in fifth place for the entire UK, just behind Brexit which had only happened a few days prior, & coronavirus as two cases were confirmed in Britain.

As with anything of that magnitude on social media, it also attracted a fair share of trolling. Personal favourites included those using #AbleismInFourWords to patronisingly explain why talking to us as in a slow, condescending tone while gesticulating wildly was not ableist at all, which if anything only served to prove my point. There were several accusations of being an easily-offended snowflake from people who found my hashtag offensive. Usually I have very little time & patience for trolls, often blocking & reporting them before they can continue, but this time I decided to be the bigger person. So I posted this:

It seems that #AbleismInFourWords has had quite an impact on the disabled community, as I received many messages & tags commending me for what was really nothing more than a spur-of-the-moment idea. It was quick, catchy, & could be applied to an array of scenarios both funny & serious; there was really nothing more to it.

Social media, for all its numerous short-comings and faults, is not always the evil we make it out to be. Sometimes, a tiny spark of inspiration is all that’s needed to create a positive trend that reaches out to many, many people, spreading humour & inspiring people across the globe.

Building Accessible Bridges.

Whenever I have to challenge someone about doing something ableist, such as parking on the pavement or blocking an access route, almost always the culprit tells me it isn’t ableist. Usually this is because they didn’t intend to be ableist, yet it is widely accepted that accidental racism, sexism, or homophobia is still discrimination. Then comes the excuse that they could never be ableist in the first place, because their mother-in-law’s sister’s ex-husband’s cat from 10 years ago once used one of those cute kitty wheelchairs & only had one eye. It is rare that these people apologise, and if we’re being honest, they’re just going to repeat that behaviour over & over again, building up an increased hatred of those self-entitled disabled people who keep challenging them along the way.

During face-to-face interactions it’s impossible for me to hide my anger & frustration that yet another needless obstacle has been placed in my path, both literally & figuratively. However, it’s significantly easier to hide my true emotions behind carefully crafted words, making online interactions somewhat calmer. It is a far more conscious decision to write a sweary insult than it is to blurt one out in the heat of the moment.

With some careful thought, it’s quite easy to pick apart someone’s argument to show them why it’s hypocritical or illogical. Asking someone to specify exactly what they mean by each part of their rapid-fire tweet often brings to light things such as the different interpretations of a particular word or phrase, or where someone has obtained their facts from. With a decent back-and-forth going, & a willingness to have your own statements analysed & questioned in the same way, it is relatively easy to set up a good debate. It is at this point that I realised that marrying a philosophy student may have had an effect on how I win arguments.

That said, some people are never going to listen to you, no matter what evidence & logic you put before them. Here’s the thing – in these scenarios, they feel exactly the same way about you. It can be difficult to remain patient, & I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t given someone the short shrift online for their ignorance, but it is important to remember that they find you as infuriating as you do them.

Humans are argumentative by nature, and even in an ideal world they would almost certainly find something to fight over. However, you’d be surprised how quickly barbed insults can flourish into healthy debate, and another connection is made. Trying to teach others to be tolerant & understanding of disabled people, or any other minority, isn’t about burning bridges. It’s about building them. And now I sound like some wise old wizard who has a white, bushy beard stretching down to their knees.

What Came Before.

Given that the title of this blog is Diary of a Disabled Person you could be easily forgiven for thinking that discussing my life prior to disability is somewhat irrelevant. However having had many conversations with able-bodied people who accidentally discriminated against the disabled and pleaded ignorance, I have been able to reflect on my own actions before disability was a factor in my life.

The saying that “you never imagine that something like this could happen to you before it does happen” is clichéd, but it is also true. Before a virus decided my brain tissue looked like a tasty meal, disability was something other people had to deal with. Of course had you asked me, I would have thought myself to be highly inclusive and non-discriminatory, a result of my ignorance. I realise that in my time at school I have probably obstructed a corridor, left someone disabled to struggle with a door, and stepped across the front of a wheelchair without a second thought. I probably spoke to someone in a patronising tone or ignored them altogether in favour of speaking to whoever they were with. I certainly never stopped to consider that I could enter buildings that wheelchair users couldn’t, by virtue of the fact that I could climb up steps. Had I been old enough to drive chances are I would have parked over a lowered kerb. My parents brought me up not to misuse disabled facilities like toilets and changing rooms, but other than that, I probably caused many disabled people a headache or two.

All of these little annoyances that now occur in my daily life I have probably put someone else through and while I hate to make excuses, I would say that most were a result of ignorance. No one in the family was disabled at the time, none of my friends were disabled, and I wasn’t disabled; I had no experience to learn from. This is why I try to have a little patience with others when they simply didn’t know or realise that what they were doing would cause me extra trouble, particularly if they are genuinely apologetic and help me resolve the issue when it is brought to their attention. I will
sometimes try to reassure them that I used to do similar things out of ignorance myself.

There are however, a group of “ignorant” people that I find difficult to deal with. There are those who take exception to me having a problem with blocked access routes, and neither apologise nor help me resolve the issue, often giving me a mouthful of abuse for daring to burst their precious little bubble in the process. Many car drivers will move forwards to clear a kerb drop only to roll back over it once I have passed, leaving it blocked for any other wheelchair users. Others tell me they’ll only be there a minute and to be patient, despite the fact that this attitude can make me late to wherever I am headed.
Then, there are the worst of them all; the people who park in disabled bays, and use their changing rooms and toilets who don’t need to, usually because they want to take their pram/trolley/shopping bags into a larger room with them, and not when all the other facilities were already in use. These people are invariably the rudest and most inconsiderate, and certainly cannot plead ignorance when there are signs everywhere highlighting that disabled people should have priority access to those facilities. I knew better than that as a child, and I know I would never have been that inconsiderate
as an able-bodied adult.
I believe genuine ignorance to be a forgivable reason for accidental ableism. However when people choose to carry on impeding the disabled by continuing to do things they know are ableist, neither apologising nor helping me to rectify the issue or simply disobeying the signs displayed clearly around the facility, I cannot accept ignorance as an excuse. It is these people who are truly ableist and shouldn’t get to hide behind half-hearted excuses to avoid responsibility.