I’m afraid I’ve finally succumbed to The Open Letter. I was originally going to write a post aimed at the people who have spent the last few days trolling the NUS Women’s Conference hashtag, its organisers and participants, or just generally laughing loudly all over the internet, because they (like all NUS conferences have for years) requested the use of British Sign Language applause (“jazz hands”) rather than clapping, due to the impact sudden loud noises can have on people who have anxiety disorders, who are autistic and/or have other sensory processing issues, who are hard of hearing, the list goes on. I was going to write something about how all this mockery is massively ableist and horrible and should not continue. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the last few days, it’s that there’s little point trying to reason with the aforementioned ableist douchecanoes (some of whom have sadly been fellow disabled people; I’ll get to that later) – most of them are just trolling for the fun of it, quite a few of them seem to just hate activists/students/feminists/women and have taken the opportunity to be awful towards us without giving much thought to why, and all of them are a lot like the horrible school bullies I’m sure you’ll be all too familiar with. I didn’t fancy feeling like I was banging my head against a brick wall anymore, so instead I’m writing to you; disabled people who, this week or otherwise, have been subjected to that sort of treatment for requesting an accommodation abled people aren’t necessarily aware of – so most disabled people, I would imagine.
Bullies (let’s just call them what they are), especially in large numbers, can plant seeds of doubt in our minds and make us question ourselves. I don’t know about you, but I constantly find myself asking close friends for validation against those people. “Am I ridiculous, over-reacting, childish, selfish? Does the fact that I even need to ask you these things just demonstrate that they’re true? You’re nice to my face, but are you all laughing behind my back? Would you laugh at me if one of the adjustments you make for me was instead presented to you out of context on Twitter?” I’m sure I’m not the only one, so I thought I’d try to offer some of that validation to the rest of you.
So: your disability accommodations are valid. You’re not ridiculous or selfish for simply wanting the same level of access and comfort as abled people already get all the time, because the world is designed to meet their needs already. Sure, maybe you’re in a position where you can do without it if and when you have to, but at what cost to you? Abled people don’t have to just deal with it, and neither should we. Anyway, surely making your life easier in a way that doesn’t harm anyone else at all can only be a good thing? Remember that the only reason there’s been such a big fuss in the first place is because abled people are so insistent and and relentless in refusing to even allow a conference they’re not at to make a minor change in hand movement that harms nobody – they are the ones over-reacting. Please keep that in mind; just because they’re so numerous and vocal doesn’t mean that they’re right.
“How do you expect to survive in the real world?”, they might tell you. “You just need to work on your difficulties!” What they don’t know (or wilfully ignore) is that you already are doing that work, more than they could ever know. Society or the “real world” (which, let’s not forget, is a human construct so shouldn’t be accepted as a given) is inaccessible and harmful in a multitude of ways. It is designed to exclude people like us, and even though it often goes un-noticed, you are working your socks off to live and to thrive in it anyway – and again, abled people don’t have to deal with that stuff at all. Most of them genuinely don’t realise this privilege, so it doesn’t occur to them that maybe they could move some of the way towards you. With apologies to Muse, they like to give an inch whilst you give them infinity. It is absolutely not selfish to more evenly distribute some of that load.
To disabled women: I’ve been saddened to see a lot of this ableism and bullying coming from abled feminists, who think that improving accessibility at the NUS Women’s Conference “trivialises feminism” or “makes women look weak”. I’m really sorry about them. I can’t believe this even needs saying, but you are not letting your gender down just by existing. You didn’t create a society which sees women as lesser – men did that. I think feminists really need to work on this ableist (and sexist!) idea that women have to be completely invulnerable, with no concept of emotions or physical or mental health or self-care, just to “earn” the respect that men automatically receive. You’re not trivialising feminism; in fact, by acting like you don’t exist and by holding women to an invincible-machine standard, it’s feminism that’s trivialising you. For what it’s worth, given that you’re facing patriarchy and ableism, and maybe some other oppressions as well, yet you’re still here trying to make a change, I think that if anything, you’re making women look amazing.
Going back to all genders now, I’m also really shocked by how many disabled people are willing to join in, say “but I have *relevant disability* and I don’t need this, they’re being ridiculous” and throw other disabled people under the bus; though maybe I shouldn’t have been, because a few years ago I probably would have been one of those people. Internalised ableism is something I’m still working on. Anyway: your access needs do not make other disabled people “look bad” – that’s based on the assumption that accommodations are a bad thing in the first place, and that assumption comes from abled people, not you. In addition, you are not the reason abled people don’t take disabled people seriously; abled people are the reason that abled people don’t take disabled people seriously. Your disability and related adjustments are not silly, cutesy or made-up just because they don’t match somebody else’s.
Having said that, it’s important to remember that the reverse is also true; other disabilities are not silly, cutesy or made-up just because they don’t match your own. I know it’s tempting to take out your frustrations on other disabled people with access needs you personally have never heard of before, to blame them for “making us look bad” whilst also potentially making yourself seem more “reasonable” and more likely to be taken seriously by abled people (“Look, you can’t call me ableist because this person agrees with me!”) – like I said, I’ve been there too. But the truth is, it’s a lot easier to attack each other than to confront abled people, because of the privilege structures involved. Think about where the structural power lies; it’s abled people and an ableist society that deny and/or ridicule your accommodations, not other disabled people.
Lastly, if it helps, something else I’ve learned this week is that the online trolls are not representative of humanity at large. It may be true that the dominant reaction of abled people to stories like this is confusion and maybe an initial “that’s ridiculous”, but most of the time, it isn’t out of malice but out of genuine ignorance, and that is something that can be changed. In amongst the awfulness of the past few days, I have been pleasantly surprised by how many of my friends took an interest in this, and were willing to listen and learn. Also, whilst it’s sad that this is the case, it seems that most people tend to be more accepting of people they know and interact with offline than of people they just find out about online, if that’s any comfort regarding the “Are my friends laughing at me behind my back?” question. Playground bullies do seem to grow up and follow us out into the world beyond the school gates, but please remember that being powerful doesn’t mean they’re right about you, or that they’re impossible to overcome.
So keep your heads up, keep fighting the good fight however you can… and then, just because it seems to annoy abled people so very much, might I suggest we celebrate with jazz hands?