Hello everybody, I will be exploring the concepts of ableism and speciesism and the intersectionality between the two, which I argue is absolutely critical, to the point where you can’t tease the two apart.
I want to begin with a quote that I actually shared on the event page, I don’t know, a few days ago. But it really sums up everything that I’m trying to say so I’m going to repeat it for you again. This quote is from Mia Mingus, a disability rights activist, and she states:
“Ableism is connected to all our struggles because it ungirds notions of whose bodies are considered valuable, desirable, and disposable.”
So to begin, I just want to get a couple of definitions out of the way. The first is disability. And it might seem at first to be quite straight forward, but it actually is a complicated categorization. Disability, as I am attempting to define it, is whether a person can function in a way that is expected or not. This expectation usually comes from society, as opposed to what most people think, the medical world.
So, I argue that disability is not necessarily just about the body, it is about society and how they view that body. On the other hand, though, disability has been claimed as a self-identity for many people with chronic illnesses or other challenges. I myself have claimed the term and I refer to myself as disabled, and it is not a dirty word, you can say it.
It is also important to acknowledge that disabilities can be either visible or invisible. There is quite a problematic idea that the people with disabilities in our society always use a wheelchair, and if they use a wheelchair they are always paralyzed. This is not remotely true. Many people with disabilities appear able-bodied on first glance. I myself am one of them. Although I now, as my disabilities are becoming a bit more of a challenge, usually have a brace like the one on my wrist, or a cane. Sometimes I do use a wheelchair. But on good days, where my pain is low, I look like the average young white girl. And people will question, you know, why I take the elevator to go up one floor. So it is important to recognize that, you know, just because somebody isn’t using a wheelchair does not mean that they are not disabled.
And now I want to define ableism for you, and I have two quotes to accomplish this. The first quote is from Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg, from this year, also a disability rights activist that I encountered online. And she states:
“Ableism is a form of bigotry that values non-disabled people over disabled people. It is also a part of a system that segregates, excludes, and denies disabled people our basic rights to social, economic, political, and architectural access. It becomes internalized, with the result that disabled people learn to feel ashamed of our bodies and minds as wrong, tragic, broken, pitiful, disgusting, and freakish.”
The second quote I have for you is as follows: “Ableism reflects the sentiment of certain groups and social structures that value and promote certain abilities over others.”
And the last bit there is absolutely crucial to what I will be discussing – the idea that certain abilities are valued over others.A few examples of the consequences of ableism: they range from accessibility issues which I have been dealing with all day, today – so not having ramps, not having power-operated doors, not having elevators, that sort of thing – that is architectural discrimination. To sterilization – many disabled people with uteruses find themselves being, especially if they have severe cognitive disabilities, find themselves being sterilized against their consent, because there is this notion that disabled people should not reproduce.
And a final example of ableism is an assumption of a poor quality of life. So, unfortunately I have had multiple people tell me, without my asking, that if they had my illnesses they would just kill themselves. And this unfortunately is something that I have found in my discussions with other disabled people that every disabled person seems to hear. And this is because there is this idea that health is everything. You can see it in, you know, statements that I have used which is, you know, “Thank god you have your health”, “At least you have your health.” So there’s this idea that if you are disabled, your quality of life must automatically be poor. And that is ableism in a shell.
Now I want to, just one last definition for you guys, sorry. I want to define the concept of humanism. The definition of humanism, that I have tried to put together, is that equal moral respect is owed to all and only human beings. This means that a wrong is only a wrong when it is committed against a human person. Now at first glance, and you know, just try and not think of animal rights for a couple seconds, I know it’s difficult. In terms of human rights, this seems like an okay definition – every human deserves the same rights. But the problem becomes: how do we define a human person? Who is a human person? Is a person with disabilities who uses a fake limb or who uses a power-operated wheelchair as much as a human being, or more of a human being, than someone that does not? Is a young child the same degree of a person as an adult? And so we see that the definition of a human person, far from being a natural category, is actually totally socially constructed. And it is constructed in such a way that it is both speciesist and ableist.
The current definition of a human being, as I have come to see it, in asking people how do you define a human person, one of the – and I will often say compared to an animal – and almost the first thing that everyone says is: “Well humans are rational. They’re rational, logical beings that can think scientifically and without emotion or instinct.” This idea was discussed by eco-feminist Plumwood in the 1990s, and she noted that rationality is valued in our society, western society, over emotionality and physicality. And this preference for certain abilities over others leads to a labeling of real or perceived deviations, from a lack of an essential trait, as a diminished state of being. And that is a quote from Wolbring, an intersectional disability rights activist who also looks at speciesism.
In other words, the idea that a human being is rational, that a human person is rational without instinct, leads to a discrimination against those that are considered to not be rational. And this is key – it does not matter whether you are a rational person or not, what matters is how you are perceived. So women are perceived as being less rational than men, and since the definition of the human being is rational, scientific, without emotion, not limited by their body, women become seen as less than human, less than a person. And the same is true for persons with disabilities, since we are considered to not be rational, especially if one has a mental illness or cognitive disability, and we’re seen as having our body, our physicality, rule our behaviour. And here Wolbring brings in speciesism, and I want to use a quote from him again, which states that:
“Speciesism assigns different values and rights, based on the abilities of the animals. Humans are seen as superior over other species because of their exhibition of superior cognitive abilities.”
And so here we can see where speciesism and ableism come together in such a way that they are inextricably intertwined. Since both systems of oppression are founded on this idea of the importance of certain capabilities, the critical importance of these capabilities, to the point where you are not a true person if you are not considered to have these capabilities. And I would argue that speciesism and ableism are so intertwined that they almost appear to be the same form of oppression, as they both are founded on the idea of: “You do not have rationality, therefore, you’re not as much of a person as the white, rational, straight, male over here.”
And you know, when I say that sentence, you could put in either a non-human person or a human person with disabilities, in regards to who that would be in reference to. It’s not clear whether I’m saying you, the human are not rational, or you, the animal. And so we see how ableism and speciesism are almost completely ingrained in the definition of the human being, for how do we define human being, then, if it’s not by rationality? If it’s not by binaries and what makes us different, then who is the human person? And suddenly we find ourselves at a loss to define this concept which seems so natural to us in this society. As such, those who are considered to not have these capabilities or these traits are othered, meaning they are marginalized and pushed to the boundaries. This othering makes their loss of rights “reasonable”, since they are not as much of a person as those that hold these characteristics. Therefore, it is because the definition of the human person has been defined in regards to what it is not, it is not emotional, it is not physical, it is not instinctual, that persons with disabilities and non-human persons find themselves oppressed by society.
In conclusion, persons with disabilities and non-human persons – as well as other marginalized people, such as people of colour, queer individuals, etc. – they are not considered to possess the prized trait of rationality. And therefore, they do not meet the qualifications of the true human person, and lose their personhood. And here I want to emphasize that this is not something that we think through, you know, I don’t look at the cute little dog right there, and go “He is not a human, therefore he or she is not a person.” This is not a thought process, it is ingrained unconsciously into our being as a result of how we have been socialized. The loss of personhood, or the diminishing of personhood, as a result of the perceived inability to think rationally, or to think beyond the body, results in the objectification of these persons. We see this when animals are turned into food. They are literally turned into objects, because their personhood is considered to not exist.
I see this in my day-to-day life, especially when I’m using a wheelchair, where people stare at me even if I stare back. And I get the feeling that I am in a zoo, and I’m there to be gazed at, to be gawked at, because I am interesting and different and “Ooh, look at that strange thing.” And thus my personhood in that situation has been lost. This results in discrimination and violence against non-human persons, disabled persons, and other marginalized persons. And a quote, just to sum up what I’ve really been trying to get at here, and again from Wolbring, because he is fabulous and really understands the intersectionality between ableism and speciesism. He states that: “Judgment based on abilities is so ingrained in society that its use for exclusionary purposes is hardly ever questioned or realized.”
And so today I challenge all of you to prove him wrong. I challenge all of you, myself included, to question the importance of certain abilities, to question the importance of being able to walk on two legs, or to think “rationally”, and to critically reflect on what it means to be a true person.
Mary Fantaske is currently working on her Master’s thesis in the Communication and Culture program at Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada. She completed her undergraduate degree in Sociology at the same school. She first started exploring the links between animal rights and disability rights when she became disabled with multiple chronic illnesses and began seeing the commonalities of oppression in her everyday experiences.