Is this progress?
I was having a chat with a friend this week about the change in attitudes towards disability we’ve seen since we met six years ago. It’s so much better, we were saying, half way through a bottle of wine.
In many ways, that is undeniably true. Especially in terms of visibility. There’s a slew of books about disability by disabled people coming out this year. Disability issues are routinely covered in the mainstream press (editors are even on the lookout for them). Many, many more people know what ableism is. There was a primetime drama about the DDA. Small businesses are providing once-non-existent services to disabled people. The Baftas is accessible now. Judy Heumann’s death was a story on the BBC News website. Rosie Jones is a national treasure. More and more travel destinations are actively welcoming us. Accessible fashion is cool now. We were even on the Eurovision stage - the biggest, glitziest stage of all (even if the ‘overcoming disability’ narrative it portrayed was not exactly unproblematic). Five or ten years ago, none of this would have been possible.
My friend was optimistic. Look at all this progress, she seemed to say. And there it is, all around me, tangible and real and hopeful.
But also, all of this undoubted good is just a few loosened bricks in the towering wall of ableism. Outside the rarefied world of media decision-makers and business leaders, something else is becoming more visible, too: an unbridled hatred for disabled people. I am not exaggerating. The same day I spoke to my friend of optimism, my friend Sophie, a wheelchair user, found she was the subject of a degrading, sexually explicit meme that cast nondisabled women as ‘good’ parking spaces for men and disabled women as the ‘bad’ ones you take when none of the others are available (this is a toned down explanation). At every turn we are denied care, healthcare, education, jobs, access, humanity. Whenever a disabled person tweets about the lack of masking meaning they can’t go to an event, they are met with a tide of responses saying their safety and freedom aren’t worth nondisabled people’s discomfort. This is just the shallow end of the abuse we are subjected to. Disability hate crime is becoming more and more common. The government fuels it every time it attacks us as benefit cheats, as they did with jaw-dropping blatancy on Twitter recently. If this is what progress looks like, we may need to adjust our definitions.
It’s not that progress isn’t real. It is. It’s more that it is confined to certain sectors and certain people, and that it is afforded to only some of us only some of the time. Even the most privileged disabled people, of which I must surely be one, slip between the world of progress and the world of unrefined ableism, often without any warning. Indeed, having spent a lovely holiday at a fully accessible resort, doing as I pleased, I was bought back to reality with a sharp thud last week as, when I was transferring myself to my seat on the plane, a random air steward grabbed and moved me without so much as a warning, and her colleague proceeded to speak to my PA about me in third person, as if I was simply not there.
I couldn’t be bothered to complain. I just sat there, wondering if any possible progress will ever be enough.
See you next week,
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