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Blind," "deaf" "paralyzed" and "crippled": Shorthand for "bad." More.


Left Out

by Mary Johnson

"Western society has denounced racism, sexism and anti-Semitism, mobilized against ageism and genderism, anguished over postcolonialism and nihilism, taken arms against Marxism, totalitarianism and absolutism, and trashed, at various conferences and cocktail parties, liberalism and conservatism," writes the New York Times's Julie Salamon in her overly-long lead sentence in Saturday's paper (Tilting at Windbags: A Crusade Against Rank -- free registration required).

"Is it possible there is yet another ism to mobilize against?" she continues.

Well -- yes.

But she doesn't name the one I'm thinking of.

For Salamon, the "yet another ism" is "rankism" -- the article is about academic Robert Fuller's 2003 book, Somebodies and Nobodies: Overcoming the Abuse of Rank (New Society Publishers).

"Rankism," though, is not the word I'm thinking of.

'Ableism' virtually never makes it into the lists. Most folks seem to think it's a joke.

A week rarely passes without my coming across a list like Salamon's -- with the you-know-what word left out. Her list, though, was particularly startling because it seemed Salamon was working very hard in her lead to mention every single ism she could think of. Thus the omission seemed all the more glaring.

What she hadn't thought of was ableism.

Or -- who knows? Maybe she listed it and her editor took it out. I don't think so, though.

One can find virtually no public discussion that takes either the concept of ableism -- or the word -- seriously, I wrote back in the 1990s. That's still true today.

Writers who wouldn't dare ridicule racism, sexism, anti-Semitism or homophobia had a field day in the 1990s with ableism. It was a big joke with pundits bashing political correctness. In its salvo against political correctness, Newsweek called it a "most Orwellian category"; it was "a spoof of itself," said Chicago Tribune columnist Joan Beck -- the watchword for political correctness run amok. When it appeared in stories, it was there almost without exception as a joke. In 1990, the year the ADA became law, Newsweek said the concept "does violence to logic and language."

Writers who believe that rankism is real, that racism, sexism, ageism are alive and well, don't seem to believe that this "ism" is a real word

Though the word "ableism" was skewered as the ultimate bad result of political correctness in the 1990s, in reality the politically-correct crowd almost always forgets about disability rights when they make their lists.

NEWSPAPER HEADLINES ROUTINELY USE "blind," "deaf" "paralyzed" and "crippled" as metaphors for "bad." A search of newspaper headlines in one brief period turned up "Legally Blind on the Hudson," "Hard Times Cripple A Football Legacy," "Copyright Fine Could Cripple MP3.com," "Primary Could Cripple Challengers." Strikers threatened to "paralyze" Seoul, "irate Cuban-Americans paralyzed Miami" and the Sept. 11 attacks "paralyzed the financial district." Headlines used "blind" and "deaf" to signal something bad: "Focusing on the Few, Blind to the Many," "Genetics: Blind Spot in Medical Training," "Turning a Blind Eye." Zimbabwe was "Deaf to Calls for Fair Elections," a song was "Falling on Deaf Ears."

People who want to to eliminate "racist, sexist or homophobic" speech never say a word about using "blind" and "deaf," "crippled" and "paralyzed" as metaphors for something negative.

"In our own time we've seen . . . minority rights, women's rights, peace and disarmament and gay rights," wrote Barbara Ehrenreich, composing her 1991 litany of contemporary rights. Scholar Catharine Stimpson's litany included: "black or African-American studies; Native American or American Indian studies; Hispanic, Latino/Latina, Chicano/Chicana and Puerto Rican studies, Asian-American studies; . . . Women's, feminist or gender studies and. . . gay and lesbian studies."

Disability is routinely left out of everyone's listings.

Even when pundits concede that disabled people are treated differently, few ever note that there might be an "ism" is behind it -- ableism.

Perhaps the reason "ableism" rarely makes it into the listings is because people don't really believe in what it signals -- that there is hatred-based bigotry against disabled people. People may conceded that disabled people are treated differently, but, as I wrote in Make Them Go Away: Clint Eastwood, Christopher Reeve and The Case Against Disability Rights, people do not believe there is any hatred -- animus -- behind the different treatment. "No one is against the handicapped," we say.

"I remember my first reaction when I heard criticisms of Amos 'n' Andy, which was one of the radio programs I grew up with," First Amendment specialist Floyd Abrams told the Columbia Journalism Review back in the 1990s. "I thought, 'This is ridiculous, this is absolutely absurd to be bothered by that.' And now it's inconceivable to me that anybody could have put it on without people reacting by saying, 'You can't treat our fellow citizens that way.'"

As to "differently abled," Newsweek's Jerry Adler wrote, "Well, many people with handicaps surely do develop different abilities, but that is not what makes them a category. . . . They lack something other people possess. It does violence to logic and to language to pretend otherwise."

Comprehension about racial prejudice has evolved. There is still plenty of racism -- but liberals, at least, recognize it as that: as racism. No matter how minor, that's still progress. That happened with sexism and homophobia, too. "I don't think there's any question but that there's a new level of sensitivity to racial, religious and perhaps sexually-oriented slurs," Abrams continued (saying nothing about disability slurs). What had happened was that social censorship -- the censorship that occurs naturally when the majority in a society itself comes to believe that certain ways of speaking about a group are morally indefensible -- had taken hold.

It really hasn't happened with disability, though -- thus, no "ableism" in the listings.

Posted July 12, 2004

Mary Johnson edits Ragged Edge. Her latest book is Make Them Go Away: Clint Eastwood, Christopher Reeve and The Case Against Disability Rights.

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