The Oxford English Dictionary records the first usage of the word ‘ableism’ in 1981. It’s highly probable that disability rights activists have been using this word much longer; many people are surprised to learn that disability rights activism has a history dating to the 1800s, that people with disabilities have been challenging discrimination against us for a very long time, and that many people with disabilities historically were radical activists working in solidarity with other movements, like the women’s rights movement and the civil rights movement in the United States. The history of the disability rights movement is erased, just as we ourselves are erased from public view.
One of the greatest challenges in social movements is often pressure from within; for members of the dominant class, pitting members of a movement against each other allows them to sit back and watch the movement tear itself apart. The disability rights movement, large as it is, experiences substantial internal pressure, and one of the most persistent sources of friction is the hierarchy of disability, which results in internalised ableism expressed within the disability rights movement.
People new to the concept of disability rights who are just starting to explore are often confused by the idea that people with disabilities can be ableist; surely, because we share lived experiences, we all get along, right? This is reinforced by a reluctance within the disability rights movement to talk about the hierarchy of disability and the ways disabilities are weaponised against each other by people with disabilities. The unwillingness to confront the hierarchy is a significant shortcoming in the movement.
The hierarchy of disability says that people with physical disabilities are ‘more disabled’ than people with invisible illnesses, that varying degrees of cognitive disability trump each other, that some mental illnesses are ‘more serious’ than others, that self-diagnosis is viewed as lesser than an official medical diagnosis, and so forth. Very few people with disabilities openly acknowledge the hierarchy, let alone fight against it, and many people use the hierarchy to police each other, to decide who is ‘disabled enough.’
People with physical disabilities will say that people with invisible illnesses don’t really experience ableism, and thus shouldn’t be allowed to be part of the conversation when it comes to disability rights. The classic markers of disability in the eyes of the non-disabled community; wheelchairs, canes, service animals, are also read as markers of being ‘more disabled’ within the disability community. Differing lived experiences are read as having greater and lesser degrees of disability, rather than being simply different manifestations of the disabled experience. And, inevitably, this results in backlash, with people on the bottom of the hierarchy making assumptions about those at the top; that they, for example, never experience policing from non-disabled people, that they don’t have trouble with accommodations, that they are never shamed for their disabilities.
The disability hierarchy is not just damaging to the disability rights movement from the inside, setting us at each other’s throats and making it harder for us to work in solidarity because people are sniping at each other and policing each other’s disabilities. Wheelchair Dancer points out:
A significant weakness in the disability community as I encounter us are the ways in which we handle invisible disabilities and, in particular, cognitive impairment. We have a hierarchy that mirrors that of the nondisabled world; somehow, secretly, we prioritize impairments, compare them, and treat our people differently on the basis of perceived (or not) impairment. And because we do it, because, to the outside world, this kind of prejudice seems secretly sanctioned among disableds, the nondisableds feel perfectly free to continue their own bad behaviour.
Every time non-disabled people encounter a person with a disability engaging in disability policing, it reinforces the idea that this is acceptable. After all, if disabled people are doing it, surely that means it’s fair game for everyone! When a person with an invisible illness claims that people with physical disabilities are never shamed or challenged on their disabilities, it erases lived experiences; wheelchair users can tell you a wide variety of stories about times they’ve been questioned on whether they are ‘really’ disabled, whether a part-time wheelchair user ‘really’ experiences ableism, whether they are just ‘playing the disability’ card to get something they want. When a person with physical disabilities claims that cognitive disabilities don’t require as much accommodation, it makes it that much harder to access needed accommodations. And so forth.
This hierarchy often plays out along the lines of ‘visible’ versus ‘invisible,’ two concepts very much up for debate when in fact, as I argued last year, many disabilities are very readable:
I don’t like the term “˜invisible disability.’ I don’t like it both because it’s often not true, because in fact many disabilities are very easy to identify and not just to the initiated, but because it reduces the perception of disability to visual perception. As though this is the sum total of how people interact with others and how people identify each other.
All impairments are equal, it seems, but some are more equal than others. And if you want to take that George Orwell Animal Farm analogy one step further, never mind the “four legs good, two legs bad”, it’s “physical good, mental bad.”
Policing from within the disability rights movement can be encountered on all levels, and it is extremely harmful. Every time people with disabilities police each other, it makes it that much harder to fight for equal access. Every time people who could be working in solidarity with each other are dehumanising each other and denying each other’s identities, it’s a lost opportunity; as we fight to free our people from institutions, to achieve equal access at all levels of society, to fight skyrocketing rates of sexual assault and abuse against people with disabilities, to confront disability taunting and bullying, to address very high poverty rates for people with disabilities, we are also wasting time fighting each other, deciding who is sufficiently disabled to be a figurehead for the movement, who gets to speak, who will be listened to.
All members of a social movement do not need to get along on all things. Debate, dissent, and discussion within movements is a valuable part of making them stronger and more effective; conversations, for example, about the intersections between disability and race need to happen more frequently and more in depth. Policing of disability, however, is not something that enriches and improves the disability rights movement. It is something that makes it less powerful, and makes it easier for non-disabled people to silence us.
I work in solidarity with all my fellow crips, whatever their disabilities may be, however they may feel about their disabilities. I won’t stop until we have accomplished liberation for all, not just for some, and I believe policing has no place in the disability rights movement; part of my fight for liberation includes tearing down the hierarchy of disability to make an equal space for everyone at the table, however they arrive there.