Still Disabled and Proud

Hello world! I’m still around. I’m just also arguably an overly ambitious silly person going through a premature midlife crisis at 30, and trying to balance a full-time job (yes it’s still the job as a writer in which I clearly still haven’t learned to be succinct), building a business on the side (no it’s not an MLM), and doing my first Masters degree (yes I do intend to do at least one more after this). Aside from still being around, I’m still proudly disabled, and I don’t intend to stop writing this blog as part of my disability advocacy efforts.

In this post, I’m going to go on a little bit more about why the word “disabled” is not a curse word. For my previous post on the topic, check out the post titled Disabled and Proud, without the “Still”. I will start with a discussion of person first versus identity first language, after which I’m going to embark on a bit of a semantic tangent about why the word “disable” is not the opposite of “able”. I’ll conclude with a bonus opinion on why “special needs” aren’t all that special.

So what do I mean by person first versus identity first? Person first language in relation to disability is exactly what it sounds like. It is when the person is mentioned before the disability, as in “person with a disability”, “person with a visual impairment” etc. Identity first language is when the disability is mentioned first, as in “disabled person”, “blind person” etc. Proponents of person first language argue that disabled people are people first, and are not defined by their disability. Proponents of identity first language argue that their disability is a core part of who they are, and often they identify as part of the disabled community.

There is no right or wrong answer in terms of which to use, but preferences differ according to who you ask. Although there have been some recent surveys that have shown that there is a general preference for identity first language in the disability community, I would like to emphasise again that we are not a homogenous group, so what I said about “depending on who you ask” is key here, in that it’s a good idea to ask the individual you intend to talk or write about. The general consensus, however, is that person first and identity first can be used interchangeably.

Personally, I’m also comfortable with person first and identity first being used interchangeably. I do have a slight preference for identity first though, although person first would in no way offend me. However, here are my reasons for mostly referring to myself as a disabled or blind person instead of a person with a disability or a person who is blind:

  • It just feels less clunky. It’s quicker and more succinct to say or write “disabled person” instead of “person with a disability”, (see, I care about being succinct sometimes) especially if you’re going to be saying or writing it a lot.
  • I’m not ashamed of it, so it doesn’t need to be an afterthought. Yes, I am a whole person, and my personality doesn’t revolve around my disability. I just happen to be blind. However, if I’m comfortable with being called a blonde woman instead of a person who has blonde hair, a Game of Thrones fan instead of a person who is a fan of Game of Thrones, or a cat lover instead of someone who likes cats a lot, then I’m fine with blind or disabled person.
  • It is part of my identity. Having been disabled all my life, it absolutely has played a role in the experiences that have made me who I am. My disability has taught me to be innovative and resilient. That’s positive. Societal discrimination and stigma has also probably partially contributed to my internalised desire to prove myself or to conceal certain emotions, and that’s not so positive. But the positive, the negative and the neutral are what make me a whole, authentic person.
  • I consider myself to be part of an international disabled community. This is a community of disabled people who stand in solidarity with one another, take control of the narrative surrounding disability, advocate for disability rights, and sometimes even take collective action to engage in disability politics. This community claims the term “disabled”, and we identify as such.

Now, on to my mini semantic rant. Some might argue that “disabled” has a negative connotation, and this is why they prefer person first language. I’m not going to repeat my previous arguments about why being “disabled” is not an inherently bad thing. This time I’m going to talk about the actual word. The opposite (antonym) of “able” is not “disable”, and so if someone is disabled, it doesn’t mean they are not able. The opposite of “able” is actually “unable”, and they are both adjectives. On the other hand, “disable” is a verb, and the opposite of “disable” is “enable”.

The fact that “disable” and “enable” are verbs are the crux of my argument. If you think of a button on a website that is disabled, it means that some outside force caused the able button to no longer function as intended. If a machine such as an ATM is disabled, it means that it was designed to work, but that something caused it to break or malfunction. In the case of someone who is disabled, I argue that they are disabled by a society that is not inclusive. Inaccessible environments, for example, are the outside forces that cause people with specific bodies and needs not to be able to fully participate in society in the same ways that nondisabled people can. For a wheelchair user, a building with lifts and ramps is enabling, as is an accessibly designed website to a blind person. The wheelchair user is unable to walk, and the blind person is unable to see, but neither are unable to function. Society and environments (forces outside of the disabled person) are the real barriers to their full and equal participation,, hence disabling them.

Okay, so if I am disabled by a society that doesn’t take my diverse needs into consideration, why do I not use the term “special needs”? This could be a whole discussion on its own, but partly because accommodation is not inclusion. An accommodation at school, for example, would be if a blind person were to be assigned an assistant to sit in class with them and explain what the teacher is pointing out on the board. Inclusion would be if the teacher were to adjust their teaching methods to include all students, and no longer engage in practices such as just pointing at what they’re trying to draw attention to.

I’m not arguing that all accommodations should be thrown out the window, but I am arguing that the goal should be inclusion. For the focus to be on inclusion, we need to get rid of this idea that some people’s needs are “normal”, and other people’s needs are “special”. Nondisabled student X might need access to female hygiene products, whereas disabled student Y might not. This doesn’t make student X’s needs special, and just because student Y is disabled and has needs too doesn’t mean his needs are special either. They’re just needs. Everyone has needs.

So, in conclusion, I’m still in favour of referring to myself (and having others refer to me) as “disabled”, and I prefer this above anything else. I also still do acknowledge that opinions differ, and I don’t speak for all people with disabilities. But, as evidenced by me finally breaking my silence in 2023 to come and drop a couple of opinions here, I still have them, and I’m still unapologetically disabled and proud.

Les Inemployables: The Bottom Line Regarding Disability and Employment

Lilley sits at a table, typing on a laptop with an earphone in one ear. She is wearing a tailored business-like black dress and black high heals, her long blonde hair is worn up in a hair clip, and she is wearing light makeup. There is a black cat plushy sitting on top of her laptop screen, and Lilley's guide dog Teska's face is just poking out from underneath her chair.

If you think the gender pay gap is a tripping hazard, the disability pay gap will cause you to fall right into the ditch.

I have briefly touched on this topic in a previous article, but today we are going to take a closer look into disability and employment, or the lack thereof. This has unfortunately become rather relevant to me recently. I am very freshly unemployed and am now furiously job hunting again, and/or trying to build up a client base so as to start my own business. Since it is Worker’s Day in South Africa today, I thought that this would be a good time to post this.

In developed countries, 50% to 70% of disabled people of working age are unemployed. In developing countries, things are even worse, with 80% to 90% of disabled people lacking employment. In South Africa (my country) it is estimated that 90% of disabled people are unemployed, and this statistic approaches 100% in rural areas.

Why is this? Well, for starters, education for people with disabilities lags far behind, especially in developing countries. Countless disabled people never even make it through primary school, let alone all the way through a university degree. According to an article published by the Human Rights Watch in 2019, there is a lack of reliable enrolment data regarding the education of children with disabilities in South Africa, but it was estimated that 600,000 disabled children were not enrolled in school at the time. According to the same article, many disabled children who are in school are segregated, attending “special schools” in which they are not taught the same content as students in mainstream schools. When I was in high school, I remember being the only student in my class taking straight mathematics instead of maths literacy, and both straight maths and science are now no longer available as subject choices at all at my old school. This is a massive concern, as limiting subject choices makes it much less likely that students will end up with subjects that will allow them to qualify for university. Even if they do, they are limited in what they can study. Often, removing certain subject choices results from these schools’ extreme lack of funding from government. In addition, parents of disabled children interviewed by the Human Rights Watch expressed concerns that “special schools” do not teach disabled children the skills necessary to lead an independent life and to find employment.

In the cases in which disabled people attend university, getting all the way through a degree or postgraduate degree is also not easy for disabled people. This is the case worldwide, but I am going to write from a South African perspective and draw on my own experiences, and those of my friends and acquaintances. Most of them are blind, so please note that I am not covering each and every disabled person’s struggle here.

One’s university experiences as a blind person are often affected by what one chooses to study. I chose a degree that other blind people had studied before me at that university, so a precedent had been set and certain kinks had been ironed out. Still, there were issues. For example, we had what was called a braille office, where inaccessible material would be made accessible for us. This could include the scanning of books to make them available in formats that were accessible with a screen reader, actually printing some material in braille, and describing certain visual information in text. Very regularly, lecturers would forget to send the material to the braille office in time, because disabled students were just not prioritised. Once the material reached the braille office, it wasn’t immediately available either, as it had to still be converted. When this was the case,  it caused us to receive our study material later than other students did, giving us less time to study before tests. It also caused a pile-up of work when we had assignments to complete, because we did not have the option of starting with certain assignments earlier and getting them done long before the deadline in order to start on others.

In my Political Science Honours year (as was the case in many Honours years) there was a compulsory module on some inaccessible computer program that involved processing statistics. I had to wait a whole extra year to get my Honours degree, because I struggled through that module and didn’t make it. I was eventually allowed to take a different module in its place the following year as an exception.

Even attitudes within the disability office itself were problematic. Some (please note: not all) of the staff would react irritably to our requests, as if we were being ungrateful and they were doing us a favour. It didn’t seem to matter that assisting us was actually what they were being paid for.

Two of my closest friends were the first blind students to study Computer Science at my university. When they spoke to the disability unit, they were at first discouraged from following that study route. They managed to study Computer Science after all, due to having some very accommodating lecturers and tutors within the Computer Science department itself who figured out ways to teach them. No thanks to the disability unit, but to open-minded individuals. Of course, once these two friends of mine eventually got their Masters degrees, the disability unit did take credit, as if the credit didn’t belong to the actual disabled people who got that far.

Another friend of mine wanted to study Social Work. The Social Work department had some of the worst reasons for objecting. Apparently they still did a lot of record keeping and other tasks in physical writing instead of on a computer, which would not be accessible to my friend. She stood her ground though, was eventually accepted to study Social Work, and came out at the top of her class.

Other issues that were experienced by disabled people in my university included being refused accommodations if they had invisible disabilities. Additionally, people with learning disabilities who were granted extra time to complete tests sometimes found that the extra time granted was not sufficient. They would lose marks because they could not finish in the allotted time.

A friend of mine who is a wheelchair user could not access a lecture hall in a specific building, because the class was on the second floor and the building did not have lifts. This was something that “could apparently not be changed”, because that specific building was a historical landmark. As if preserving a building in exactly the way that it was first built for the sake of history is more important than actually serving the students that currently have to use it…

Please note that I generally had a very positive experience at university, despite the above-mentioned issues experienced. My university is by far not the only university where these challenges exist. I just don’t care to candy-coat reality.

The above was a discussion of the shortcomings of the education system and educational institutions, but it is important to understand some of the challenges related to becoming employment ready. Now, let’s dive into the challenges that disabled people face when they are actually job hunting.

As someone who sat around without much income for a good two years at least (aside from what I could scrape together through part-time tutoring and acting as someone’s research assistant), I cannot begin to describe to you how disempowering being an adult who is still dependent on their parents or their partner can be. It absolutely destroys one’s self-esteem. Sitting staring at the same four walls every day of my life also had a very negative impact on my overall mental health, and subsequently, on my relationships. It was discouraging and demotivating to spend ages creating profiles on fifty different job sites, and then applying for job after job and either hearing nothing at all, or simply being rejected with some flimsy excuse if a reason was even given in the first place. Some disabled people eventually end up having to move back in with their parents, because they run out of money for rent or anything else.

When I was job hunting, my options were limited as it is. Many advertised jobs (although they had nothing to do with the ability to drive) required one to have a driver’s license. I also couldn’t work somewhere too far away if I couldn’t find a lift. Ubering would have been simply too expensive. Attending interviews was already expensive. I once arrived for what I believed would be an interview, but all of the job candidates first had to complete some typing test on an inaccessible computer program. So after spending all that money and sitting around for an hour, I was just sent home again.

The first job that I eventually found after that was in a very low paying position. I was on probation for longer than other new employees, because I didn’t work as fast for various reasons related to the accessibility of the computer programs we were using, as well as the fact that I couldn’t quickly scan a page for the information I was looking for. The quality of my work in comparison to that of other employees was disregarded. Adding to this, it was in a different town, so I used to get lifts from a colleague. When that colleague was off from work for some reason, I would be forced to put in leave or to Uber to work. For context, one day only of Ubering to work and back cost more than 10% of my salary. The job was one that could absolutely be done remotely, but I was told that it would not be allowed. The line that my managers liked to throw at me was “we don’t allow other employees to work from home, and we know that you don’t want special treatment because of your disability”. I did not want special treatment. I just wanted reasonable accommodation laws to be respected, but I said nothing, because I didn’t want to be seen as difficult by my employers and lose my job. Reasonable accommodation is based on the principle that employers should make adjustments to the workplace environment, or to elements surrounding how a job is performed, to put disabled employees on an equal footing to nondisabled employees in terms of employment conditions. This could include elements such as being flexible around working hours, or as was my requirement, being flexible in terms of rules regarding the physical location of where the job was going to be done.

The rule about working from the office wasn’t even relevant though, because once when there were taxi strikes, my colleagues living in affected areas were allowed to work from home. Eventually I had to resign, because the colleague with whom I would ride to work moved out of my town and would no longer be able to give me lifts. Why did I not also move closer to work? Because I would have been a disabled woman all on my own, far from my friends in an entirely unfamiliar (and in the case of where my job was located, not very safe) environment, and my salary wasn’t worth that. After that, it took me another seven months to find employment.

So why is it so difficult for qualified disabled people to find jobs? I would argue that the primary reason for this is because of assumptions. Employers assume that a disabled job candidate must be less competent than their nondisabled counterparts. Otherwise, they assume that the disabled person might turn out to be a liability and cost the company money. Employers are concerned that they would have to invest in making the workplace environment more accessible by installing lifts and ramps, or purchasing software that would make working on a computer accessible. Another concern might be that disabled people with specific health conditions would take too much time off work for doctor’s visits and the like. On most occasions, the disabled job candidates aren’t even asked what kinds of accommodations they would require. Employers are also unlikely to directly tell a disabled person that they are being overlooked because of their disability, for fear of legal repercussions.

When companies do employ people with disabilities, it is often to tick boxes on some employment equity form. This results in the disabled employees being shoved into menial, low paying jobs that are frequently poorly matched with their qualification and skill levels. These jobs are not high responsibility jobs, so even if the disabled employee turns out to not be competent, the company doesn’t stand to lose much.

Here’s the thing that most employers do not understand though: Reasonable accommodation laws do not require organisations to do anything that will cause undue hardship. In fact, they can be beneficial to everybody. An example that occurred naturally is in the case of adjustments made to working conditions that allowed many people to work from home during Covid lockdowns. Many employers are now sticking to this mode of work, or making use of a hybrid approach whereby employees are required to come into the office only a certain number of days per week or month. Research has also shown that this has even increased the output of employees, as this cuts out time spent commuting, just to name one benefit.

 In addition, universal design (based on the principle that physical and electronic spaces should be designed in a way that make them accessible and usable to the widest range of people possible) is beneficial to more than just disabled people. I am not going to branch out into an in-depth discussion of universal design for the purposes of this article, but suffice it to say that research has shown that only a quarter of the people who benefit from accessibly designed environments and technology are disabled, and it generally positively effects an organisation’s bottom line.

Employing and accommodating people with disabilities holds other benefits. Research has shown that employees with disabilities tend to be highly reliable, taking fewer sick days or time off, and staying in jobs longer than other employees. This promotes lower staff turnover. Disabled employees have been shown to be equally productive to nondisabled employees, and they are also no more likely to sustain injuries at work than their nondisabled colleagues. Organisations that recruited disabled employees indicated that it was much more affordable than they initially thought it would be. Disabled people (because they have to work around barriers on a daily basis) tend to have very strong problem-solving skills and are innovative. Innovation is a highly prized skill in the workplace.

Finally, it has been shown that a diverse workforce outperforms a homogenous workforce 2:1. Diverse recruiting promotes teamwork, as the workforce will consist of people with diverse skills, ideas, and life experiences to draw from. Diversity also builds an organisation’s image, both from within, and in terms of perceptions about the company amongst customers.

On a quick sidenote before I conclude, it would be remiss of me not to mention that disabled people are frequently expected to offer their services for free, when it comes to acting as disability and/or accessibility consultants for organisations. Disabled people have highly specialised skills and knowledge that should not be undervalued, and anyone (regardless of their demographic group) should be paid for doing a job. Organisations should realise that making products and services accessible benefits them, and they are not doing disabled people a favour by investing in accessibility.

Progress has been slow, but things have recently been moving in the right direction. Remote work opportunities have drastically increased the pool of jobs that disabled people can apply for, and a focus on diversity and inclusion (DNI) culture within organisations has created a greater awareness of the benefits of employing disabled people. However, there is still a long way to go.

The “bottom line” is this: If you’re an employer, take the time to communicate with disabled job candidates about their skills and their needs before you write them off based on assumptions. You won’t be sorry. If you’re a disabled job seeker, hang in there, and remember that you have the right to be treated fairly without fearing to lose your potential or current job. You add value.

Disabled Demons, Angels, and the Space in Between: Part 2

Lilley (wearing a black bakini) is lying on her stomach floating in a swimming pool on an inflatable tube with angel wings. She is holding a wine glass in one hand and an e-sigarette in the other, and her highlighted hair is up in a hairclip. The tube is transparent with glitter on the inside, and the wing visible behind her shoulder is transparent and white.

In last week’s post, we discussed disabled demons, or the subhumanisation of people with disabilities in the media and in people’s general perceptions. In part 2 of the disabled demons and angels discussion, we will be examining the other side of the coin: when disabled people are seen as angelic or as superhuman, which can be equally damaging. We will conclude by discussing the space in between, or what counts as an accurate and constructive understanding of who disabled people are. Let’s dive in.

Often societal perceptions of disabled people are not malicious. They just swing to the other extreme. For example, some people hold the belief that disabled people are all good and pure, and can’t possibly be amoral. Remember the example that I used in a previous article about the character Penny in the Big Bang Theory saying: “Handicapped people are nice, Leonard. Everyone knows that.” I’m here to tell you that it unfortunately just isn’t true. There are definitely some disabled people who are simply terrible humans, and all of us (every single one) are flawed, just like you.

 Not to discredit any of these organisations or programmes (because they do amazing work) but this  sentiment is also often reflected in the names of charity organisations or programmes that try to improve the lives of disabled children. Think of names along the lines of Children from Heaven, or God’s Little Messengers, and the like. I am not actually mentioning real names of actual organisations/programmes that I know of (because as I said, the point of this article is not to discredit them) but you get the idea… It perpetuates the belief held by some people that individuals with disabilities are protected or especially beloved by God, because they’re “special”.

Now, I am going to address the topic of inspiration porn. Much has been written and said about this, so I am fully aware that this part of the article may be derivative and may echo what has been said in many talks and on many other blogs. However, knowledge about this phenomenon has to be spread as widely as possible, and if that involves some repetition, so be it.

Inspiration porn is essentially when disabled people are talked about in the media and elsewhere as incredibly inspirational or heroic, simply for going through life with a disability. Often, if a disabled person achieves something, they are praised in the media and elsewhere as having achieved whatever it was despite their disability, or to have overcome their disability through their achievements. I will address the problem with terms such as “overcome” and “despite” in relation to disability later in this article.

The phrase “inspiration porn” was coined by the late great Stella Young, a disability rights activist, comedian and journalist who was born with osteogenesis imperfecta, and was a wheelchair user for most of her life. In her well-known April 2014 TEDxSydney talk, “I’m not your inspiration, thank you very much”, Stella explains how her parents were approached by someone in her teenage years who wanted to nominate her for a community achievement award. However, Stella agreed with her parents’ response, which was that although it was a nice thought, Stella had not actually achieved anything at this point. Although quite strong academically, she was just a normal teenager going through life. Later in her life when she was teaching a class, a student asked her when she was going to “do her speech.” It turned out that that student had only ever experienced disabled people as being motivational speakers.

Stella explains that inspiration porn is actually a form of objectifying disabled people to make nondisabled people feel better about their own lives, and to inspire them. It is not celebrating the disabled individual. Instead, the life of the disabled person is being used to guilt or motivate nondisabled people to get off their asses and to try harder in life. It isn’t really about the disabled person.

I’m sure almost everyone reading this will have seen memes with pictures of disabled people doing various things, with captions like “The only disability in life is a bad attitude”, or “so what is your excuse?”. Firstly, as I’ve said before, the only disability in life is not a bad attitude. I have a disability, and sometimes I also have a bad attitude. They are not the same thing though. I am blind, and society makes life difficult for me by excluding me, and not treating me as equal to sighted people. This isn’t going to just go away if I maintain a positive attitude. As Stella Young said, no amount of smiling at a staircase is going to get a wheelchair user to the second floor. As for excuses, I don’t know your struggles. If for some reason you’re not living up to your potential, or to what society expects from you, I have absolutely no right to judge you.

Instead of a picture of people running with prosthetics with a caption such as one of those mentioned above, what if we reframed this to “how cooll is it that this person has a device that enables them to do something they want to do?” Or if it’s a picture of someone without arms who is painting holding the brush in their mouth, shouldn’t we be thinking more along the lines of how innovative they’re being instead of how we’re not trying hard enough?

A quick side note: on the topic of devices that help disabled people achieve their goals, remember that a wheelchair user is not “wheelchair bound”. They are not tied to their wheelchairs, and most wheelchair users also don’t hate their chairs. Wheelchairs are not holding them back. They are making them more mobile.

Anyway, next time you see an inspirational picture or read an article about a disabled person doing something or other, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Why are you inspired? Is the picture that someone painted by holding the brush in their mouth even that good, or are you only celebrating because it was a disabled person who painted it? Are you inspired by the blind person you saw cross a street simply because you think it must be impossible to cross streets without sight, or are you inspired because maybe they told you something meaningful when you spoke to them, if you even did?
  • Who is the message in the caption or the article really about? Is it about a disabled person who innovatively found a way around an obstacle or achieved something that is really of note, or is it about motivating, inspiring, or guilting nondisabled people?
  • What is inspiring you exactly? Why is it more inspiring to see a disabled person who won a gold medal than a nondisabled person who did the same thing? Or why is the fact that a disabled person decided to become a Paralympian more inspiring than a disabled person who decided to become a successful business person? And if you are inspired by the disabled person who became a successful business person, are you inspired because it’s an achievement for anyone to run a successful business, or are you inspired because you think it must be very difficult for disabled people to be successful in the first place?

Inspiration porn often conveys the message that the person in question is more than their disability. Yes, we are more than our disabilities. We are often well rounded human beings. However, our disabilities are part of who we are. We don’t “overcome” our disabilities. We “overcome” circumstances created by an exclusionary society that discriminates.

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t be inspired by disabled people. There are many inspirational disabled people, just as there are many inspirational nondisabled people. Stella Young, for example, says that she was inspired by a wheelchair user that came up with the bright idea of plugging their phone into their wheelchair to use the battery to charge the phone. She was not inspired that the wheelchair user managed to drag themselves out of bed in the morning, to brush their teeth, and to remember their own name. She was inspired because the wheelchair user was innovative. I am inspired by Stella Young. I’m not inspired that she made something of her life “despite” her disability. I am inspired that she made something of her life, period. One day, I hope to be as successful as she was in my disability advocacy. I hope that my message has as much of an impact on disabled and nondisabled people alike as hers did.

The bottom line is this: Framing disabled people as superhuman for simply living their lives without collapsing into despair sets the bar very low. It conveys the message that society doesn’t have very high expectations of disabled people in the first place. It reinforces the view that disabled people are super brave for simply living their lives, because it must be awful to be disabled. It isn’t awful to be disabled. It’s just what it is.

So, what is the space in between? Well, logically, if we’re not subhuman or superhuman, we’re just human! We are also not a homogenous group. We have differing views, even on disability. You are reading an article written by only one disabled person. Take into consideration that I do not speak for all of us. If you’re wondering how a specific disabled individual sees life, just ask.

Disabled individuals may have extraordinary characteristics (as most individuals do) but all in all, they’re all just people who have hopes, dreams, friends, families, strengths, weaknesses, worries, heartaches, and things that make them happy, just like everyone else. Some of them throw parties. Some of them keep to themselves. Some of them date, and some haven’t met anyone who would make them want to navigate that minefield. Some of them are religious, and some are not. Some like pineapple on pizza, and others believe that there has never been a worse invention in the history of Earth.

In case you were wondering, I am decidedly pro pineapple on pizza, and I am human, as much as I wish I had a superpower such as the ability to teleport, read minds, or to blast that person refusing to let my guide dog and I enter the pizza restaurant into the next dimension. See? Now that would be a worthwhile superpower to have, as opposed to managing to simply draw breath as a blind woman.

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?