Unlearning ableism – a key step to improving our Social Justice work

Zacharia Hopane and Veronica Baloyi, organisers of the campaign aimed at creating awareness of the occupying of disabled parking bays by able-bodied motorists. Picture: Oupa Mokoena/ANA

I was fortunate enough to bring in my New Year at the Afropunk Music Festival in Johannesburg this year; an event that lived up to my magical musical expectations. The festival prides itself on being a space that prioritises the safety of marginalised groups including LGBTQIA+ people, Black and Brown people as well as people with disabilities and aims to celebrate these excluded and oppressed groups. 

The event was hosted at the historical Constitution Hill; a venue inaccessible by wheelchair. This, naturally, sparked a conversation online about how ableism continues to be “side-lined” as a form of oppression when it is, in fact, a social justice issue that we all should be working to dismantle on a super-structural level as well as on intra/inter-personal levels. It was this conversation that got me thinking about how deeply ableism is entrenched and normalised. It also got me thinking about the various manifestations of privilege and how if something doesn’t affect you personally then it is something that you most likely are oblivious to.

The fight against ableism, just like all other systems of oppression, requires us ALL to think and interrogate our lives. And it is in the spirit of learning and unlearning, that I write this article to urge people to think differently about how we navigate this complicated world.

The thing is, there is variance in human self-expression; a type of variety that is simply [and often remarkably] inexhaustible.  There are, however, times where our chosen/normalised forms of expression are harmful and it is this that I hope to challenge here.

But first, What is ableism?

Ableism refers to a form of oppression and discrimination against people with visible and invisible disabilities. Ableism, like all other forms of oppression, takes on many forms including (but not limited to) expressing hate for people with disabilities, the denial of accessibility for people with disabilities as well as institutionalised discrimination and othering. 

Ableism is often perpetuated through language. Words like “insane” and “crazy”, for example, are both descriptive words that are commonly used without much understanding of the violent load it carries.  For people who have mental illnesses, these words carry greater meaning as it is commonly used as a slur to hurt and offend. People with disabilities come face-to-face with stigma daily; all of which is reinforced by harmful attitudes and hateful words.

How to chuck Ableist language?

Ableist language is so engrained in our cultural make-up that often we don’t even realise that our words carry the power to hurt and offend. It is this normalisation that needs to be fought at all costs and on all levels. A good place to start is at personal level.

Educating yourself on how ableism manifests institutionally, structurally, physically, behaviourally, culturally and linguistically is one way to begin to grapple with the lived reality and daily struggles of those with disabilities. Educate yourself on the historical legacies of hatred and discrimination towards people with disabilities

Learning what is ableist language and then unlearning it would be the next expected step. Our languages are vast and all-encompassing so finding an appropriate alternative to express yourself without using ableist words and phrases ought to be easy.

Below are a few examples of ableist words that we should unlearn: retarded, lame, crippled, crazy, insane, dumb, feebleminded, moronic, psycho, maniac, idiot, looney, hysterical, nuts, wheelchair-bound, freak, weak, invalid (as a noun) and special.

Realising just how pervasive and normalised these harmful words are will help us understand that fight against ableism, just like all other systems of oppressions, requires us ALL to think carefully about how we go through our lives. And it is in the spirit of learning and unlearning that I urge us all to think about how we can work towards ensuring that our social justice work is intersectional.