Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Of activism and ableism

I'm not an activist, and this isn't an activist blog.

I do however, do things that could be described as "activism" from time to time.  Stuff like signing and sharing petitions, writing letters to politicians, organising or participating in media coverage of issues that matter to me, and coaching others in how to get the word about about the ones that matter to them.

generated here
But I don't call myself an activist. Part of that's because I don't really like calling myself anything.  I'm not a writer, I just like writing.  I'm not a Whovian or a Pegasister or a whatever you call a fan of Mythbusters, I just enjoy those shows.  I don't identify with a political alignment, an organised religion, or a job title that fits neatly in a box.  I'm just not big on labels.  Labels are written in ink and have square edges, whereas identity is fluid and changeable.

But part of it is because on occasion I've had my kind of activism - the letter-writing, post-sharing, talking-to-people-in-private kind - mocked and dismissed by the shoutier, placard-waving type of activist.

And that's what this post is about.  Let's talk about how the idea that 'real' activism is marching in the streets and chaining yourself to things is really quite privileged, and in particular ableist.

In the first instance, taking part in a physical protest means being there.  That, particularly in a country the size of Australia, takes time and money.

If you're living in poverty - like one in eight Australians, and more than a quarter of our disabled population - you can't just take off wherever and whenever you like.  Whether it's an interstate flight or public transport to the other side of the city, if you don't have the cash you're not going.  Driving yourself requires not only being able to drive but also having a car and money to run it.

Then there are the logistics: if you need wheelchair-accessible buses, if you're vision impaired but the trains don't have reliable audio station announcements, if you struggle with sensory overwhelm in crowds or the cognitive tasks involved in planning and executing a complicated trip across multiple modes of transport, if you need to find a support person willing and able to make the trip with you, those are all very real issues that can't be ignored.

If you work or go to school, you can't just take time off whenever there's a rally to attend.  If you have responsibilities or caring duties, from a child to a parent to a cattle station, they don't stop for politics.

And when you do get there, will the site itself be accessible?

The other issue is one of respect.  It's about acknowledging that people have different abilities and strengths, and respecting people who are doing what they can, how they can, with what they have.  It's about respecting that some people are good at in-person confrontation, but others are good at writing or art or the mobilisation of online communities.  If you only think one kind of activism matters, or that the contributions of people with different skills and resources and abilities are less important than yours, it's time to take a long hard look at yourself and what you're fighting for.

Just like you need more than one tool to grow a garden, so it takes more than one tool to grow a better future.  Yes, there's a place for shouting and civil disobedience.  But there's also a place for letters, for quiet words in the right ears, for humour and gentleness.  There's a place for everyone.