Allies and Objectification


Hello folks,

So, if folks were wondering why I’ve put efforts into a new site, well… I tend to do this when I want to get back into writing more. Such is the case today.
Around the UofTsphere there has been a lot of discussion of allyship, which I don’t really want to dive too deep into, because I more-or-less reject the whole framework these days (see: Accomplices Not Allies, for a better take on that). But for me, regardless, I find the whole self-labeling of allyship trend to be really problematic. To label one’s self an ally or anything of the sort is an expression of your own personal ego, your own personal validation–and not reality as expressed by one’s actions. While I may believe in many causes or ideals, my own actions dictate what is of true value here. So, yes, judge myself as accordingly too.

But for many who would take up that (admittedly false) mantle, action can be entirely lacking or misdirected. On the matter of disablism, this is particularly true.

The Disabled Object Held Aloft.

Some time ago, I wrote about my feelings on then-burgeoning discussion of ‘inspiration porn’ that was trickling out from so many corners of the internet. It still happens, mind you, and my own views on the subject have hardened as I’ve become less and less willing to serve the role of prop.

But, what is especially bothering–and I’ve seen this come across social media and other feeds of late–is the idea that self-proclaimed allies serving to do the proping up as a means of encouragement or a means of gratification. What I mean here is when folks frame the accomplishments and successes of those disabled by society as some conclusion of a dramatic arc–some great victory over the universe–that has played out for their enrichment. We, as disabled people, struggle against society, against oppression, against barriers… but this struggle is not yours to appropriate so as to validate your emotions and vaunt our existence as a just tale in a cruel world. Instead, we have victories and–like any–should be celebrated, but should be celebrated for what they are, rather than by how society disables us.

Like, there are hundreds of lists that run down over the great, ‘inspiring’ disabled folks of our recent generations–but these portraits are always infantalized, always deeply flawed, and bow to the logic of capitalism in broader society. Case in point: Helen Keller. Keller, one of my political heroes and obvious landmark in the mainstream conception of the Deaf and Disabled communities, was a damn Wobbly and held fairly radical politic for most of her life. This however, does not matter or come of note. It distracts from sanitized narratives and the dramatic arc which those enabled by society require to feel warm about.

But, don’t worry, friends… if you seek comfort in such things, there will be more than enough ParaPan AM articles to sate such needs.

The Disabled Object Pushed Aside

Speaking of ParaPan, though, isn’t it nice that Atos serves as one of the Games’ sponsors? Oh you know, the company behind the United Kingdom’s utterly disasterous Personal Independence Payment and Work Capability Assessments. For a more fulsome run-down on Atos and the company that suceeded them in the UK, Maximus, Johnny Void gives some frank words. And it isn’t simply the sins of some PanAm sponsor elsewhere, but the deeds of the State at home that perpetuate a continued disregarding of those disabled by this very same society.

Continued cuts to the Ontario Disability and Support Program (ODSP) wrack the province and drive disability and anti-poverty activists to the streets. And, I don’t even want to talk about the joke that is enforcement of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA). But, even if these things as a point of focus are too reformist for your taste, one has to recognize what they are symptomatic of: Disabled people in Ontario are seen by society as objects to be put aside, to be dealt with underhandedly, to be ignored where society can ensure it.

Our needs are secondary to those in power, yet what do ‘allies’ in the movement do? Well, there are those who work on these issues actively and that is noted. But many, many more fail to do this and, even if they claim to, act in fashions that are lacking. AJ Withers (one of the best theorists and activists on these issues I know) writes both an excellent primer to making our movements accessible, but also gives an equally excellent view on examples of really ableist shit that occurs within our own movements. Give it a read, then come back. I’ll wait.

With that in mind, it should be clear that our society and our movements are mired in the same objectifying forces. Rather than in the first section–where those disabled by society were treated as objects of merit–here I wanted to bring into focus instances where those so disabled by society were objectified for being derelict and therefore ignored. While these may appear as separate and different instances of disableism, they are–in fact–interlinked. If treated as an object of praise or of dereliction by society, by ‘allies’, by our movements… then we are still then treated as objects without agency and objects alone.

And this isn’t good enough. It is enraging.

The Disabled Person in Resistance

Instead, we must assert our agency where we can and assert it away from these objectifying tropes–we must act in resistance. Though ‘allies’ and our movements may not be there, we must resist.

What must we resist? Regardless of our ‘allies’ and these movements, what we resist are the very same interconnected oppressions in society that bear upon all those society marginalizes and dehumanizes. As Helen Keller stated in an interview entitled “Why I Became an IWW“, our way in life arises not from within, but from this root cause: “I had thought blindness a misfortune. Then I was appointed on a commission to investigate the conditions among the blind. For the first time I, who had thought blindness a misfortune beyond human control, found that too much of it was traceable to wrong industrial conditions, often caused by the selfishness and greed of employers. And the social evil contributed its share. I found that poverty drove women to the life of shame that ended in blindness.”

The conceptions and states arising from the manner of society disables, but it also creates the foundation upon which our misdirected ‘allies’ and movements act–even as they aim to resist. Like we aim with their conceptions, so too must we smash the systems of oppression that serve as this very foundation. To do this, we will need our movements and those who–truly–wish to work with us (rather than, again, self-described allies)… but with that, our movements must become truly and radically accessible.

As AJ states in his already linked to post, “[r]adical accessibility means many things, not just ramps and lifts – things that should, of course always be in place. Radical access also means thinking about interlocked oppressions. It doesn’t matter if an event has a ramp at the door but costs $5 to get in, or, if someone cannot afford transit to get there, that event isn’t accessible. If the event is racist or sexist or homophobic or transphobic or otherwise oppressive, it isn’t accessible to many disabled people.” Meaning, of course, that to be radically accessible, we must resist and our movements must act.

And with that as the path set forth, we can make our way forward collectively. Readers, set aside your need to fulfill yourselves in our achievements and take a stark assessment of the nature of our society. Put down your ally buttons and crush the conceptions of charity that go through your mind. Replace it with a hunger for justice. Together, we can do more, but only if your actions express it.

All the best,
– Brad.


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