A smoking volcano: tackling ableism and the forces fuelling it within the European Union.

, by Leo Capella

A smoking volcano: tackling ableism and the forces fuelling it within the European Union.
Image: A smoking volcano, kind of like the disability scene at the moment, that somehow despite problems like ableism, has never managed to go off in a vicious eruption, yet! Credit: David Stanley

Ableism is one of the final frontiers in the fight for inclusion, equality, and diversity. However, it is also a word that some disabled people and many non-disabled people would not recognise if they were accused of or confronted with it. This is why the European Union, and all of us, need to do a far better job of tackling it. Not only does ableism hurt and hold back a population the size of France in the European Union, the factors that fuel it include the EU’s somewhat top down approach to policy making, and ignorance.

But what is ableism?

Simply put, ableism describes discrimination by non-disabled people towards disabled people. The ’able’ in the word comes from the phrase ’able-bodied’ which comes from a disability rights movement that was led mainly by physically disabled people. With the rise of the neurodiversity movement in the past three decades the movement has also ‘turned to brains’, as one reporter famously put it. However, the word still works in that it refers to the belief that people who are non-disabled with all their limbs functioning are superior to disabled people, with the same principle applying to a non-autistic or so-called ‘neurotypical’ mind being superior to a neurodiverse one. It’s such an ingrained form of prejudice that you might have been ableist yourself: if, for example, you have called someone a moron, (an archaic way of describing someone with a learning disability, which ties in with eugenics). Alternatively, you could have described yourself as “a bit OCD”, which wouldn’t endear you to people affected by obsessive compulsive disorder. If this sounds familiar, you probably didn’t mean to insult disabled people. Many do so without thinking, but being treated as an afterthought is precisely why many disabled people have problems accessing online services or being included.

In fact, when George Osborne was Shadow Chancellor he got into a spot of bother when he allegedly described former Prime Minister Gordon Brown as “fairly autistic”. Sadly, it didn’t stop him from becoming Chancellor, although he was booed when presenting medals at the London 2012 Paralympics for the impact of his austerity policies on disabled people. But, it is a good example of someone in power using disability or neurodiversity in a negative context and falling foul of being ableist as a result.

Ableism affects disabled people in many ways, and can be brutal. Award winning British actress Ruth Madeley was the victim of a widely reported disability hate incident. A private taxi driver forcibly took her wheelchair away from her after an argument about not going to the accessible entrance at Euston because it would be “too difficult” for him to drive around in heavy traffic, despite the fact that his passenger couldn’t use the stairs, which is why the accessible entrance is there. The driver would have driven away with her wheelchair in the boot of his cab, had Madeley’s mother not stopped him. This behaviour demonstrated how disabled people are disabled by society. Transport for London are investigating the incident, and in the UK sentences can be increased for disability hate crime convictions. However, currently there is no EU-wide legislation on disability hate, although the European Commission is conducting two consultations on this very subject.

Ableism isn’t just physical violence either, it can be subtler than that. For example, a book on what it means to be an autistic woman was briefly categorised by Amazon as the number one best seller in… wait for it… “Teaching Students with Learning Disabilities”. While I’m a great fan of reducing the gap in understanding between non-disabled professionals and disabled people, this belittles a book which is actually focused on a wide array of adult-centred issues by reducing it to ‘othering’. For Joanne Limburg, its author: “it feels as if my words have been put in an institution and treated as of only specialist, clinical interest - exactly the kind of move I’m protesting against in the book”. It also goes to show that disabled people, whether autistic or otherwise, are subject to not being taken seriously as professionals and viewed through a one-dimensional medical lens. This type of thinking is based on high handed ignorance, one of the danger signs of weak public discourse.

Ableism also has consequences for disabled people not just on an individual level, but on wider policy. A case in point: the Council of Europe, which the UK is still part of, is working on a draft protocol to the Oviedo Convention that has been ferociously opposed by multiple pan-European disability organisations including Mental Health Europe, the European Network on Independent Living, and European Disability Forum. This is because in providing a set of circumstances for involuntary institutionalisation to be justified the draft protocol does something that arguably violates Article 12 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities which covers equal recognition before the law and increases the likelihood of forced institutionalisation.

So, ableism puts disabled people more at risk of living in poverty and/or being excluded from the rest of society. In fact, according to the European Commission: “28.4% of [disabled people] are at risk of poverty or social exclusion compared to 17.8% of persons without disabilities”. That’s a difference of over ten percent, and given that over 52% of disabled people in the EU feel discriminated against, that’s a scary situation. This situation fuels mistrust between disabled people and the professionals as well as policy makers who are supposed to be working with, not against them. A slogan used by disability rights activists is: “Nothing about us, without us.” which means that decisions have to be made with the express and direct permission of people who are directly affected by them. The Brexit referendum was fought on a slogan, however twisted, of “Take Back Control”, the idea that leaving the EU would give people control of their lives that had been taken away from them. The majority of disabled people in the UK who voted to leave the EU might well look at the limited arrangements for consultation in the European Disability Strategy, which I wrote about in my last article, and conclude that they would have had little or no control had we stayed. (Section 9 of the strategy stipulates that disabled people will only be consulted, and only then in ‘relevant’ areas).

If we can tackle ableism and its root causes then we won’t just be including a significant percentage of people in the European Union and beyond. We will have an important part of the equation for a democratic European Union that balances unity and diversity for the twenty-first century and beyond, if we survive everything that’s hitting us. We won’t find the full equation through doing so, however, as no single problem or cause could ever give that. However, we’ll have better ways to balance unity and diversity through including people who are on the receiving end of policies as equals, whether disabled people or others.

So, let’s boldly go and make the European Union and wider world a safer, more inclusive place for disabled people as well as everyone else.

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