The Ugly Side of Disability Rhetoric

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Andrew Pulrang

Raise your hand if you’ve heard or read something like this:

“Nothing’s ever good enough for you people! What more do you want? You disabled already have the system wired! Look at all the benefits and special privileges you get! Nobody helps me out that way!”

“Disabled people consume huge resources at hardworking taxpayers’ expense. Some disabled deserve help if they can make something of it, but a lot of them are so disabled they’ll never amount to anything. And lot of them aren’t really disabled … just lazy.”

“Some disabled people shouldn’t vote. They have the capacity to make a real choice, and they just end up manipulated by activists with political agendas.”

“People like that shouldn’t be allowed out in public!”

Conflicts about disability issues seem to take two different forms. One is more or less civil, honest, well-intended disagreement over what, exactly, we should do to make disabled people’s lives better. For instance:

  • Are disabled people better off with individualized services, integrated into mainstream schools, jobs, and neighborhoods? Or, are they safer and better off in separate, specialized programs and facilities.
  • How can we make a real dent in the huge number of disabled people who are unemployed? Should we focus more on skill-building, disability awareness, or fighting job discrimination?
  • How do we speed up improvements in accessibility? Do we try to persuade businesses to make their places accessible? Or, do we push for more aggressive enforcement through government action and lawsuits?

Questions like this can generate some heat and raised voices, both in person and in social media. But they generally don’t feel like a kick in the gut, a smelly spit in the face, or an imminent threat. Those come with the other kind of disability discourse, the ugly side of disability rhetoric.

There’s a bit of a lull in the General Election campaign at the moment, somewhere between the last primaries and the party conventions. Yet, I have noticed a rise in truly ugly, hateful rhetoric aimed specifically at disabled people in political discussions. It’s not a flood yet, and a tiny number of trolls are doing the work of hundreds, but I think there’s a strong chance that ableist venom going to get worse before Election Day.

What can we do about it? I’ll tell you what I do. My first strategy is to “intellectualize.” That is, before I react emotionally, I try to analyze what I’m hearing and where it might come from. These disgusting, sometimes frightening ideas about disability aren’t all the same. They can be categorized. Here are a few of the distinct flavors of hateful disability rhetoric I have noticed:


People will say that organizing politically to get better policies for a particular group is selfish and corrupt, that disabled people shouldn’t try to manipulate public opinion and politics for their own gain. We’re not an oppressed minority or even a community; we’re a powerful “special interest group,” like bankers and gun lobbyists.

The Zero-Sum Game

This is the idea that one group’s gain is always another group’s loss. Whenever disabled people do a little better, someone else must be doing worse. It’s not fair that working people’s taxes go to support disabled people who don’t contribute anything to society. This worldview, in which winners always create losers, often leads to a more targeted, specific, and hateful rhetoric, called …


This is when people actually blame their own troubles on disabled people. A low-paid worker can’t get decent health insurance because disabled people get it for free. Our schools are failing because they have to spend all this time and money on disabled kids instead of investing in (my) smart kids. And of course, we have all these terrible mass shootings because we let the crazies and sickos out of institutions and made it impossible to lock them up again.

Survival Of The Fittest

Behind a lot of the nastiest rhetoric lies twisted ideas about what is “natural.” Some people seem to take special pleasure in not being compassionate, arguing that disabled people shouldn’t be supported as much as they are because it will weaken society or taint our gene pool. It’s not always said so plainly, but it’s actually not that hard to find people who, when pushed just a bit, will admit that maybe it would be for the greater good if disabled people just weren’t here.

The “Yuck” Factor

Underneath it all is the beast that nobody wants to acknowledge, but which drives a lot of the ugliest disability rhetoric. It’s that involuntary, gut-level response to disabled people that ranges from intense social discomfort all the way to physical disgust. For a certain segment of any population, disabled people are just plain gross and disturbing. They can try to build an ideology around it, but they can’t hide their real motivation.

Other than identifying these “arguments,” what else can we do in the face of people who don’t just misunderstand or disagree with us, but seem to resent our very existence?

First of all, we probably need to give up on refuting these arguments with facts. We can do it, of course. It’s dead easy because these arguments are astoundingly wrong. It’s not effective though, because these arguments arise more from emotion than from facts.

Second, we need to call them out. We need to name what we’re hearing and reading, without hedging or even much in the way of diplomacy. It’s not just offensive. It’s ugly and wrong.

But then, we probably need to exercise a little empathy, too. The very worst prejudices and rhetoric comes from people who are suffering themselves. Sometimes it’s just the pain of privilege being dismantled. But sometimes it’s people who are, themselves, truly screwed over by an unfair society. Never stop fighting, but also never forget that many of our tormentors are, themselves tormented, by economic inequality, powerlessness, loneliness, and social rejection.

I’m not sure any of this helps solve the problem or lessen the very real danger of ugly disability rhetoric, especially in an election year in which politicians seem more aware than usual of the political advantages of appealing to people’s worst fears and resentments. Still, a bit of awareness, intellectual distance, and even compassion at least can’t hurt.

Contact: Andrew Pulrang