TW: ableism, inaccessibility, police
“Why are you defending Owen Jones?” he asked, with a look of derision. (Well, it may not have been those exact words, but it was to that effect.)
I was at the Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival, and one of my fellow campers was knocking Owen Jones: “He doesn’t turn up to events to back up the things he writes about, so he clearly doesn’t really care”.
What had I said?
Again, I can’t remember my exact words (probably wouldn’t be able to even without ME-related poor memory), but I can summarise it: not turning up to things doesn’t mean that someone doesn’t care, and valuing physical presence over and above other forms of participation is a very ableist thing to do, especially when so many demos, actions, etc are as inaccessible as they are today. (So not so much defending Owen Jones, as critiquing the argument made against him, really…)
Often, people dress it up as anti-intellectualism. (Or, rather, this is the side which I’ve encountered most often, because of what I myself can and cannot do.) That by being physically active we are taking fights “to the people” more than by writing. But it just creates a different elite – or, rather, reinforces an existing one – abled people. And, lest we forget, some of “the people” are disabled.
(Ironically, some of the same people who accuse me of not doing my bit to combat the reinforcement of intellectual elites seem to be the same people who think I need to have read a lot of specific, sometimes quite long texts in order to have a well-thought-out and well-articulated political stance. (My eye muscles are some of my worst-affected muscles, so on lots of days I cannot read for more than half an hour without losing the ability to focus properly. Therefore headaches. And not actually being able to see the words on the page properly. That too.))
Less subtle is the term “armchair activist”, given to those, who tweet or whatever about things rather than, you know, actually turning up. I can only reiterate: the presumption that people only care if they are somewhere physically is ableist. Probably this is most obviously ableist against people with physical disabilities, but a lot of political activities can also put strain on our psychological resources, so it discriminates against plenty of people on grounds of mental health too.
(Also, as soon as police are involved, we shouldn’t forget the specific ways in which they systematically endanger and do violence (physical and psychological) to other groups – or people read as being in those groups – such as black people, or trans people.)
So, next time you even think about criticising someone for not caring because they weren’t somewhere physically, think about whether you’ve actually made any effort to make your event accessible, at all. I get that it’s difficult to make all events accessible to all people, but there are things you can do to make sure there are ways people can be involved. Making sure you use a variety of different tactics (and being open from the start that you will be doing so), for instance, is one. This way, people know that you want them to be part of a campaign, if they want to be. It’s no use saying “well, you should have turned up to tell us”. It’s not just no use: it’s totally ridiculous. Asking someone to sacrifice their health or wellbeing may well mean there is absolutely no way they can get to your next event/action. And don’t get me started on telling people they need to come to a meeting somewhere with stairs in order to have a conversation about wheelchair accessibility. I wish that was a joke.
(On this note, one simple and quick thing you can do which will immediately make any meetings you have more accessible: don’t have meetings in pubs. Not only are they very rarely wheelchair accessible, they are also very crowded and noisy places, which can be a problem for lots of different reasons. And they’re not only inaccessible on the grounds of disability: meeting in pubs normally excludes people with children from attending, and lots of addicts will also avoid them.)
Respect what disabled people do do. We do blogs, and youtube channels, and all sorts; and this often of our own accord, without the support of the organisations which are there propping up lots of abled people’s protests. My other project is making audiobooks of political texts, because I do think the way we rely on printed text is really problematic and ableist. Still mulling over how best to create some audio-zines, but I had an interesting chat with someone about that the other week, so watch this space – maybe it’ll be a collaboration! (Bearing in mind I have been well enough to commit half an hour a week to the audiobook project, you might be watching for a long time. But that’s the thing. You need to respect that that half an hour, and that the time I find every couple of months to blog, is actually quite a significant commitment for someone with very limited energy, and plenty of pain when I overstep my boundaries. Boundaries which sometimes move unexpectedly.) This is NOT “armchair activism”. This is not less valuable than being physically present. And if you say you believe in fighting for equality, but degrade my political activity this way – indeed, degrade my existence, since the very BEING of being disabled is itself a political act, in a world which demands that you are abled – then you’re going to have a hard time persuading me that that statement of belief was anything apart from hypocrisy and lie.