The What-Aboutism Fallacy

Lilley stands smiling with the Stellenbosch mountains in the background holding a white paper parasol. She is wearing a two-toned blue dress, and her wavy blonde hair is loose and tumbling over her shoulders.

Towards the end of 2020, I went onto the Facebook page of a South African news source and read a piece written by the South African President (Cyril Ramaphosa) for International Day for Persons with Disabilities. The letter made the point that the inclusion of people with disabilities is an important aspect in the recovery of the South African economy after Covid lockdowns. I was shocked and angered to read the number of comments below the letter along the lines of “but what about all the homeless and jobless” or “forget that; he should first sort out his cabinet”. And thus, a pet peeve was born!

Ever since that day, I have noticed over and over how discussion of disability leads to a phenomenon which some call “what-aboutism”. I define it as a logical fallacy whereby people try to shut down discussions of issues they don’t care to address by comparing them to other issues which they consider to be worse, and which they claim should be addressed first before moving on to the other issue. The sentences usually begin with “But what about…”.

My problem with this kind of argument (specifically in the case of disability) is manyfold. Firstly, it’s just faulty logic. Stating that Y is a problem when someone is discussing X doesn’t make X less of a problem. It’s just changing the topic. One could argue that it is valid to point out that one thing should be addressed before another because it is of greater importance, but when it comes to disability inclusion, this is not the case. I will address this later in this article.

Secondly, disability is interlinked with many of the societal problems that people consider to be more important. many of the homeless and jobless are people with disabilities. Disabled people often struggle for years to find jobs, even if they are highly educated. Employers avoid employing disabled job candidates for a variety of reasons. Some of these reasons involve employers assuming out of ignorance that the disabled candidate is incapable and would be a liability, or that the candidate might be a liability to the company in another way by costing the company money if environments or tools have to be made accessible. Think ramps and lifts for wheelchair users or screen reader compatible technology for blind computer users. Other reasons could include inflexibility on the part of the employer around allowing disabled people who have to work from home for various reasons to do so, such as blind people who can’t drive and have issues with access to transportation. Ironically, Covid has caused everyone to have to work from home, and suddenly employers see working from home as much less of a problem now that it benefits the whole world.

Some job advertisements even specify that the suitable candidate must have a drivers’ license, even if the job in question has absolutely nothing to do with the candidate’s ability to drive. Most employers don’t bother to even familiarise themselves with reasonable accommodation laws.

This is not even to mention the fact that disabled people are often employed in very low-paying, menial positions and there is a massive gap in terms of disabled representation in leadership and skilled positions.

I can speak as only one of the qualified disabled people who struggled to find a job. I was unemployed and struggling to make ends meet for three years after my studies, and the first job I stepped into after that was a very low-paying one which I had to leave anyway after a few months. It was in a different town to the one I live in, and the colleague with whom I used to get lifts moved away. Even so, I am one of the lucky few who are actually qualified. Many disabled people in South Africa live in poverty, and have never had access to education, let alone accessible education. In some cultures in South Africa, disability is stigmatised as a curse on the family of the disabled person, and the disabled children are hidden away and almost never allowed to leave the house.

In reality, people with disabilities have a lot to offer in the workplace. Aside from the fact that they might be highly qualified and skilled, diverse teams outperform homogenic teams 2:1. Although diversity is a matter of simple ethics, it also drastically affects a company’s bottom line, because a diverse workforce in which people from different demographics all feel a sense of belonging will produce the most innovative ideas. Research has also shown that people with disabilities have very strong innovative problem-solving skills, simply due to the fact that they have to solve problems and find different ways of doing things on a daily basis. However, that goes beyond the scope of this article, so let’s get back to what-aboutism. The question of diversity does link to my next point though.

Thirdly, disability is often considered less important even in the diversity and inclusion (DNI) space, which is ironically exclusionary in and of itself. I would be willing to bet that most people don’t go a month without hearing or reading something about race or gender diversity these days, but how often is disability thrown into the mix? In my experience (and I work in the DNI space) the answer is almost never, and if it is brought up, it’s in the broadest strokes. People just don’t know enough to talk about it and don’t bother doing research, and that includes DNI specialists. Why is this? Answer: largely because of what-aboutism.

I have experienced first-hand how conversations about disability have been squashed in organisations such as universities, even if these universities loudly shout about their commitment to transformation. If, for example, a disabled white straight cisgender man should raise an opinion in a sociology class, it wouldn’t take long for someone to tell him that he has no right to an opinion because he is privileged. Well, that may be the case. That man is very likely much more privileged than his black, queer, transgender, non-binary or female counterparts, but it doesn’t mean that he has no understanding of struggle, exclusion, and discrimination.

Most people know that racial disparities are still an enormous issue in South African society and in the world. Most people know that women still lag behind in terms of opportunities for advancement and in terms of being treated with dignity and respect in a world with traditionally masculine views. However, there is nothing that sets any of these group’s needs above those of another marginalised group, especially since disability intersects with so many of the other groups.

Disability issues are only now starting to be recognised at all. If I had been born just 20 years earlier, I wouldn’t have had my qualifications, and I probably still wouldn’t have a job. I’d be dependent on others, and I’d be one of the lucky few who actually have a support system. Disability is always the very last issue to be addressed in society, and that is why disability rights and the practice of inclusion towards people with disabilities still lags so very far behind rights and inclusion for other marginalised groups.

so exactly how long do we (15% of the world’s population and the biggest minority group globally) have to wait until our issues are considered to be serious? What is it that makes people think that all the rest of the world’s problems should be solved first? If such a large proportion of the world’s population is disabled, or will become disabled at some point in their lives, isn’t addressing disability-related issues helping everyone? Surely there’s enough space on the stage for all marginalised groups (let’s hope the stage has a wheelchair ramp) and shouldn’t we, as marginalised groups, be supporting each other and standing together instead of squabbling to have our issues be at the forefront of discussions about inclusion?

Who’s Keeping the Dogs Out?

A woman (who appears to be in her twenties) walks in early evening sunlight with her cheerful-looking golden retriever in harness. The woman is wearing black jeans and a blue V-necked shirt. Her long wavy blonde hair appears to be blowing out behind her slightly as if ruffled by a breeze.

Discrimination towards persons with disabilities is a daily occurrence worldwide. However, it is worth noting that developing countries such as my own are still lagging behind the rest of the world when it comes to the implementation of inclusive practices.


Despite the fact that “inclusivity” has become a buzzword in South Africa and elsewhere in the world, the conversations are mostly centred around race and gender and, ironically, disability is often excluded from these conversations. Through this article, I wish to initiate an honest conversation about disability and discrimination by focusing specifically on the discrimination experienced by service dog owners on nearly a daily basis, both in my country and elsewhere.


On Friday 15 October 2021, I was on my way to represent the company I work for at a business event and I used Uber to organize a lift. I was refused by three Uber drivers because I was travelling with my guide dog Teska, causing me to be more than 45 minutes late for the event. This is despite the fact that Uber’s policy states that service dogs must be accommodated in all Uber rides. Furthermore, Section 9 of the Equality Act in South Africa states that no person may unfairly discriminate against any person on the ground of disability, including:

  1. Denying or removing from any person who has a disability, any supporting or enabling facility necessary for their functioning in society;
  2. Failing to eliminate obstacles that unfairly limit or restrict persons with disabilities from enjoying equal opportunities; or
  3. Failing to take steps to reasonably accommodate the needs of such persons.


When this incident occurred, there happened to be no Uber Assists (although I do not require assistance), or even Uber XLs in the area, and I was eventually forced to order a much more expensive Uber Black. When I reported the drivers on the app, I was refunded. However, I felt that more systemic action was required. When I posted the story on Uber’s Facebook page, however, I was met with responses that were very clearly generated by a bot. These responses simply encouraged me over and over to report the individual drivers, and I received no human response even after pointing out that I felt that the issue should be considered of enough importance to warrant  human intervention.


As I stated on their page: I do not require a personal apology, as I feel that this would do nothing to resolve the issue. I require Uber to issue a public apology to the disabled community, and to explain what they intend to do to cause meaningful change. One suggestion would be to ensure that there is a specific option on the app to report service dog related incidents, as is the case in many other countries. This would immediately make it more visible to drivers.


Blind and visually impaired persons (to name just one group of disabled people who make use of service dogs and who require these dogs to accompany them everywhere) have regularly experienced discrimination from restaurants, transportation services, and even governmental organizations by being refused entry or service when out and about with their guide dogs. These refusals are related to concerns about the cleanliness of the dogs, concerns about how the dogs will interact with other dogs (in the case of wine farms with dogs on the premises) and concerns about the dogs upsetting or scaring other customers. Sometimes, if entry is granted to restaurants or other establishments, the service dog owner is requested to sit outside, or in an isolated corner. This is a violation of the right to freedom of movement, and to human dignity.


The incident on 15 October was not the first time that Uber refused me service because of my guide dog, and it has happened to numerous other blind Uber customers. It has happened to me again after the occasion mentioned in this article, and I have heard of two other guide dog owners who have been refused access since.


I am of the opinion that reporting individual Uber drivers for refusing service dogs (as one is currently encouraged to do by their customer service) will not do any good. Often, these drivers are people working hard for a living and who may be uninformed. One could argue that they do not properly read the Uber policies, but for many Uber drivers in South Africa and elsewhere, English is not their first language. I believe that it is Uber’s responsibility to properly train their drivers regarding their service dog policy. Uber, as a massive global company, cannot keep shifting the blame onto their drivers, as this has been a problem for years now.


Drivers refuse service dogs for a number of reasons, the most common reason being that the dogs will leave hair in the car which would upset other customers. However, service dog owners keep their animals as clean as possible precisely because they have to travel with them everywhere they go, and take them into public spaces such as restaurants.


Another example of similar discrimination is the time I was refused entry to three restaurants in a row a few years ago, on one of the hottest days of the year. In 2019, yet another coffee shop (where I was supposed to meet a business associate) would not grant me entry, but asked me to sit outside in the rain with my dog.


Incidents such as these are not merely inconvenient, causing service dog owners to be late for important engagements, to be seated in uncomfortable weather conditions, or for meeting venues to be changed, but they leave individuals feeling humiliated, unwelcome and disrespected.


The time has come for South African organizations (whether they be restaurants, stores, or South African branches of multinational corporations) to take responsibility for their policies and the implementation thereof. I would also like to urge South Africans with disabilities to come forward with their stories of discrimination. We have been silent for too long, afraid of disturbing the peace and upsetting the rest of the world, but in our silence, the truth lies hidden. Our experiences and our views are as important as anybody else’s in a society that claims to prize equality, and we should not have to apologize for taking up space, whether it be at a restaurant table of our choice amongst other customers, or in a vehicle that is often our only way of getting from point A to point B.


To the international disabled and nondisabled community I say this: now is the time to recognize the discriminatory behaviours that are often even more prevalent in developing countries than they are in developed countries. Let us join hands to ensure that discrimination towards the disabled is not only eradicated in countries such as the United States and Europe, but worldwide.


Please note: This article focuses on my experiences, and the experiences of others like me who are generally educated professionals. It does not necessarily reflect the experiences of all disabled South Africans, many of whom face greater exclusion, stigmatisation and discrimination than I do. I intend to publish another article during the course of this year, addressing the lack of access to education and societal participation experienced by a huge proportion of the less privileged South African disabled community.