By Maddy Stevens
Vincent Van Gogh. Albert Einstein. Virginia Woolf. Thomas Jefferson. Abraham Lincoln. These are respected historical figures who happen to be neurodivergent, specifically autistic. Most people don’t know this, and never had reason to think these prominent and influential figures were disabled, because many refuse to entertain the idea that those who are disabled are capable and transformative personalities. Most debaters are familiar enough with ableism to pick up on an obvious link for a discourse k somewhere in their backfiles, but fail to recognize that it’s just the tip of the iceberg. Ableism is not just a list of words, it’s a pervasive system of oppression that seeks to identify, isolate, institutionalize, and even erase disability. Language is one of the ways through which ableism solidifies its power over divergent existences, however, the analysis of its influence and range of power is not completed merely by establishing what words we shouldn’t use (especially since many people don’t take the time to understand why that rhetoric is harmful, and because the list is ever expanding to accommodate new discursive additions). It is vital that we examine our understandings of disability and abandon monolithic and inaccurate constructions, that our analysis extends to an interrogation of norms which we often take for granted, both within debate and society at large, and that we work with disabled members of our community to reach solutions.
There are many standards, expressions, and norms which seem innocuous, but which reveal an underlying harmful mentality upon inspection. Many of these things have become so far ingrained and accepted that to even challenge the appropriateness of them is to incur indignation and outrage against oneself. We operate under a paradigm of “able until proven otherwise”. Sometimes it’s easy to identify disability because the person matches the paradigm we have for being disabled, in other words, they have an identifying trait of disability which we cannot reason away. More often than not, disability is not easily ascertained. People who have so called “invisible disabilities” often fly under ablenormativity’s radar, so abled people accept us as one of them. Because we do not “look disabled”, people do not check themselves in conversations, and will have discussions about disabled existence as though it is an abstract concept, or will make jokes they would not say in front of someone they identify as disabled, and will voice opinions which they believe you, as an able individual, will share. I’ve debated rounds where, after reading an advocacy dealing with disabled empowerment, I was criticized for commodifying the ballot because I did not concede. This criticism assumed that I was speaking for others, and demanded that I either disclose my identity in a potentially hostile space against my initial inclination or admit to taking advantage of oppression. In forums where I have disclosed and discussed my disability, I have been met with skepticism and scrutiny, because I do not live up to every criteria in The Able Person’s Check List: Disability Edition. Both of these instances represent a time when ablenormativity informed an audience that it was impossible for disability to exist among them, and that it was especially impossible for a disabled individual to compete, educate, or exist alongside, or as well as, them. The notions we have of disability have been informed by a mostly able academia, a mostly able media, and a mostly able society. In this way, we have come to know about disability through the lens of those who are accepted and thus are in control, rather than those who are affected and who are kept subdued by such constructions.
Various institutions and groups continue to benefit from the misunderstanding leveled towards disability, as well as its otherization and criminalization. Employers in the United States may obtain an exemption from the Fair Labor Standards Act, allowing them to pay their disabled (read: unproductive, less important) employees below the minimum wage, the average being $2.15 an hour. The perpetuated myths of disabled persons being in a state of “arrested development” or “children in adult bodies” justify the segregation and poor treatment of disabled workers, who, it is asserted, should be grateful for any employment or compensation at all in light of their “defects”. Lawmakers routinely use disability as a scapegoat in order to preserve their own agendas (because the problem isn’t guns or racism, it’s crazy people!) despite the fact that having a disability increases the likelihood of being abused, not being an abuser. Historically, disability has been punishable by imprisonment and institutionalization, trends that we see continuing through the criminalization and abuse of homeless and lower income persons, who are disproportionately disabled, and thus disproportionately excluded. Legacies of disenfranchisement continue in all areas, but most egregiously (and for some reason, least acknowledged) in the 35 states in which it is illegal for developmentally disabled persons to vote. All of these connections stand to demonstrate that the idea and treatment of disability has been created by those who, in some way, benefit from the identification of and stigma towards disabled communities.
Understanding that our approach to disability is produced by those who actively benefit from the identification and control of those populations is an important starting point for any discussion. The recognition that the assignment and treatment of disability is not neutral is at least enough to encourage us to keep an open mind when we engage in questions like “what role does ableism play?” and “how do we create a more inclusive community?” We must approach this subject with the concession that our knowledge is wrong, and we must be ready to accept the narratives and input of disabled people if we are to reach any true solution. This holds especially true within the debate space, particularly if we agree to any given author’s assertion that we are educators within this space. Because ableism is so particularly entwined with academia (whether it be through outright contempt or through subtle exclusion), it is incredibly important that we recognize the role we all may play in facilitating certain harmful norms. Debate is a space for advocacy, but we attach all sorts of conditions and stipulations for even just agreeing to hear something out. The speaker has to present a certain way, they can’t stutter or pause, as that shows a lack of preparation, and they should maintain eye contact or it shows a lack of conviction in their arguments. These are arbitrary standards rooted in ablenormativity, there is nothing natural about eye contact nor is it necessarily more persuasive. Having a harder time reading or pronouncing words is no reason to invalidate a performance and is no indication of lack of ability. We need to recognize that our process for validating some arguments over others may be rooted in either the politics of credibility (those mentioned above) or within our own biases.
Ableism is insidious, and is often easy or convenient to ignore. Many of us will recognize surface issues, but fail to grasp the underlying motivations or how to correct the problem long term (for instance, most people will agree that it’s wrong to call someone ‘retrded’, but will continue to use the word ‘idot’, despite the fact that both have been used in an institutionalized, medical context, both have been a label of identifying disabled persons for institutionalization or for the forfeiture of rights, and that they’re literally synonymous). As a result, people often fail to recognize ableism in action and we reject the indications that would tell us otherwise. Ableism’s normalization comes through a consistent dehumanization of disabled persons and the persistent discrediting of our narratives. Because of this, it’s incredibly important for us to promote the outcry of the disabled. These discussions force us to acknowledge that there is a problem, they make us confront the impacts that we have so easily and for so long overlooked, and demand we reevaluate the understandings we once had. Every day, disabled people are killed, locked away, or stripped of our rights. Doctors and parents kill us out of “mercy”, school systems abandon us, governments deny us, society sweeps our unsightly or inconvenient lives under the rugs (The US literally had laws that prevented “grotesquely disabled” people from being in public until the 1970’s). Any educational forum has the obligation to take us seriously, to recognize us. As educators within a debate round, you do that by setting aside your biases, setting aside your outside inclinations of what oppresses disabled people or doesn’t, and listening to those who would tell that story.
There’s still an unanswered question here, which is how do we include disabled members of our community? Obviously, opening up the space and suspending our disbelief in order to learn about ableism is a huge step in the right direction. Our job doesn’t end there.
We need to stop treating disability as something that must be disclosed or proven. You do not have the right to ask someone how they are disabled if they have not offered that to you. Their hesitance to disclose that information should not be regarded as evidence that they are lying for ballots or sympathy, it should be respected as the understandable concern for how others will treat them and how this will impact their reputation or credibility. This also entails that we stop making assumptions about ability based off of little to no interaction. Just don’t go there.
Stop privileging academia over the accounts of disabled people. Disabled persons are much better situated than outside, unaffected intellectuals to understand and explain some facet of their identity. Knowing whether you are on the right or most informed side of an issue isn’t a matter of having a billion scholars who back that up; the accuracy of a solution or the description of a phenomenon is determined by those who are affected by it. Want to know whether people first language is better or worse than the alternative? Read the testimony of the people who are affected by those discourses, go to the source, and credit disabled people (especially since academia won’t).
Coaches need to make it clear that particular attitudes are unacceptable and unwelcome on their teams. The team should be a safe place where students have support and the resources they need to get better. It should not be a place where their intelligence and abilities are demeaned. If students don’t have a team, they don’t have a support group. If students don’t know if they can trust their coaches to help rather than dismiss them, they won’t come to them for help. Debate should be a site of empowerment, engagement, and education, not a place for aggressions (micro or otherwise) to be tolerated and normalized. Transforming the learning environment starts with a personal transformation. Coaches must realize that their narrative is not the only one, and must be willing to make concessions for student comfort. This means changing discursive patterns when they’ve been problematized, setting standards for the kids under your care to adhere to, and letting students find what they love and helping them understand it rather than shutting them down.
Criticisms of ableism have the power to reclaim a history that has been stolen from disabled people; putting ableism at the forefront recognizes the existences that society has tried to eliminate and reclaims the spaces from which we have been erased. This conversation is essential to understanding the world as we know it, our interactions, our structures, our beliefs. Interrogating ableism demands that we recognize disability, demands that we include disabled persons; the emphasis on this discussion asserts disabled lives as important and vital, and forces the recognition that our inclusion is necessary for any solution. The population at large has a long way to go in accommodating and accepting the identities of everyone, and one article targeted towards debaters isn’t going to change that, but I think this community is a great place to start. As so many LARPers will tell you, debaters should act as, and may one day be, policymakers, so the precedents set here don’t stay here. Even if nothing ever spills over, making the debate space safer and more inclusive, and giving more people a space of advocacy, seems an admirable enough goal on its own.
Maddy Stevens is the assistant coach at Winston Churchill and a founding member of the Women’s Debate Support Group.