By Hilary Stace*
Opinion - Dunedin's mayor may have been getting frustrated when he asked a ratepayer if he was 'deaf or just stupid', but disabilities should not be a default for insults, writes Hilary Stace.
My car radio is always tuned to Radio New Zealand and I was driving when a news item caught my attention. During a pretty heated exchange at a council meeting, the Mayor of Dunedin, Dave Cull, asked a ratepayer whether he was 'deaf or just stupid?' He soon apologised.
My first thought on hearing this report was this: why do people use disability as an insult?
I met Mayor Cull a couple of years ago. Ironically, it was at a disability-related event in Dunedin where he was presenting an award and, as I would expect from this mildly liberal city leader, he was respectful and mayoral.
There are some stroppy disability activists and advocates in Dunedin who have engaged with the Dunedin City Council over the last few years, so there is no excuse for councillors thinking disability insults are in any way acceptable.
But the mayor is hardly a raving ableist. He spoke in anger, was embarrassed and frustrated by his behaviour, and apologised. Ableism (or dis-ableism) is the name of the prejudice that 'others' disability and disabled people whereby the normal person is a non-disabled (white male) adult and the world and all its laws, policies and environments are designed for them and by them. So people with impairments become disabled people oppressed by the non-disabled majority in an ableist world.
Insulting put-downs reflect the prejudice that the disabled person is passive and defective: suffering or afflicted, bound to their wheelchair. Disability is often portrayed as tragic, although disabled people doing things that are not newsworthy for non-disabled people are sometimes called heroic. Perhaps most dangerous is the ableist view that if disabled people just tried harder (which we praise as inspirational) they could join the rest of us in the able-bodied world.
But back to the question of why is disability a default for insult? Why use words like deaf, dumb, crippled, blind, stupid and even the outdated offensive terms mentally defective or retarded as put downs? I have long pondered this. My conclusion is that humans fear disability.
Ableism floats on the surface of deeply held eugenic beliefs and values. Eugenics is the belief that disability and disabled people (the 'unfit') are so scary and potentially polluting of the rest of us (the 'fit') that they are better off dead.
For over a hundred years these views have underpinned our public policy. The 1911 Mental Defectives Act ranked 'stupidity' into idiots, imbeciles and the feeble minded. For decades these and other disabled children were forcibly separated from families, who were told to forget about them, and sent to institutions, residential schools and welfare homes where they were locked up and monitored. Our deaf children were sent to residential deaf schools and forced to learn oralism ‒ lip reading and speaking ‒ and punished for using sign language.
It is not surprising, therefore, that we now have a Royal Commission on historical abuse in state care.
I'm not suggesting that anyone who uses impairment labels as terms of abuse wants to institutionalise their target. But our historic discourse is indelibly stained by ableism just as it is by racism and sexism. In times of anger unconscious prejudices can slip out.
So please don't use ableist insults even if extremely angry and frustrated. The collateral damage of hurtful subconscious ableism is the wounding of disabled people. There are so many better and more effective words to express those feelings.
Thank you Mayor Cull for your apology. It went wider than you might have expected.
* Hilary Stace is a Wellington researcher with an interest in disability policy and history. She is very pleased that a Royal Commission on Historical Abuse in State Care is finally underway.