Creating a More Inclusive Humanism in an Ableist World

Humanists generally claim to support creating an inclusive space where people of every background can feel welcome. For example, a web search for “diversity in atheism” returns posts from Daylight Atheism, American Atheists, and Friendly Atheist, among others, all about how to open up atheism to a more diverse crowd. Women, blacks, parents, the poor – these people are traditionally left out of atheist conversations, and there’s a much-needed movement to include them. But one crucial area is still overlooked to an alarming degree: disability.

Unfortunately, the message many of us are sending out (even if unintentionally) is: if your mind or body is configured differently than mine, you’re not welcome here. Which is a shame, because I know many people with autism, hearing impairments, PTSD, reduced mobility, schizophrenia, etc, some of them as good friends and terrific contributors to the community.  Here are a few comments I’ve read recently in atheist spaces.  I’m not interested in mud-slinging, so I’m not linking to the sources, though Google probably renders my caution irrelevant:

  • “You are so literal as to be autistic. Are you really that stupid?”
  • “PETA is creating the next wave of young adults with scary personality disorders.”
  • “Cannibalism is the same as eating a hot dog?  I’ve heard better analogies from people with Down Syndrome.”
  • “Instead of writing a new generation of software to circumvent our filters, maybe they should recruit social misfits with obsessive-compulsive disorder, and write software that amplifies their efforts.”
  • “I realize that this man-child is a ward of the state. Too “young in the mind” to hold a job or live on his own without assistance. This simple minded man is alone. He is most definitely frustrated. And I feel like in a way, we are one.”
  • “[Insert countless remarks equating religion with mental disability/insanity.]“

We as humanists have the opportunity to show everyone that we can have superior ethics and morals without god or religion.  One way we can do this is to stick up for the dignity and rights of all people, regardless of race, gender, class, sexuality, ability, etc.  This includes people with disabilities, both physical and mental (which are really one and the same *glares at dualists*).  It is a basic humanist value that all people, including people with disabilities, deserve dignity and respect.  Not all people have the “standard model” brain, and a lot of those people are proud atheists and need the support of a freethinking community, so here are a few ways we can begin:

1. Recognize and discourage use of ableist slurs.  These include “retarded”, “lame”, “idiot”, “crip”, “insane”, etc.  Why?  Because these words still are being used as slurs against the disabled, and have not been “reclaimed” by the disabled, so they are not our words to use.  To use “idiot” [or any slur] as an insult is to say that this word can be used to degrade you, because being that identity is degrading. In the same way, a slew of all-too-familiar terms have been used to degrade people according to sexual orientation, gender and race.  And in case you’re wondering which words to use instead for biting criticisms, I like to go with “wrong”.  Or when I’m getting creative, “dangerously wrong” or “bogus” or “transparent” or any number of words which don’t equate an identity with an insult.

2. Understand that taking steps to include people with disabilities is good for everyone.  For example, if your local atheist group meets up in a room where the only entrance is up/down a flight of stairs, that is not accessible to everyone.  Anyone who has mobility impairments will have a very difficult time feeling included.  Meeting in a loud or crowded space can be difficult for those with hearing impairments or autism spectrum conditions.  Meeting at an expensive or out-of-the way location can also exclude people with disabilities on a limited income (as they are more likely to be unable to find and keep a high-paying job).  If we keep these things in mind, it improves meeting conditions for people without disabilities as well.  Realistically, we’re all going to experience a disability at some point in our lives, excepting the small chance of flat-out spontaneously dropping dead.

3. Be willing to stick your neck out for people with disabilities.  Trying to create change isn’t always easy or comfortable to everyone – if it were, people would already be doing it!  For example, I myself am not disabled and I don’t appear to be disabled.  This means I have the privilege to chose to ignore ableist actions in the world around me without being negatively affected by them.  But to me, humanism is about creating a better world for all of us, even if it involves more of a struggle to those of us with more resources.

Is this list complete?  By no means, but hopefully it is the beginning of a more open and honest look at the inner workings of our communities, both online and in meatspace.

Further reading:

About Andy Semler

Andy Semler is a genderqueer atheist nerd. Ze is an organizer for the St Louis Atheist Meetup Group and an active member of the Ethical Society of St Louis. Andy believes that "it gets better" only when we start making it better. Blog:

3 comments on “Creating a More Inclusive Humanism in an Ableist World

  1. I kind of question including “idiot” and “lame” on that list. I realize that they have been used in the past to identify respectively someone profoundly mentally retarded and someone with mobility impairments. But are they still used in that manner? The term “hysterical” was once a medical diagnosis of lunacy in women. If the term no longer has a medical meaning, is using it to refer to someone’s mania frowned on? Can we use the term “mania?” While what we used to call “manic-depression” is now called “bi-polar disorder,” is “mania” an attack on the psychologically disabled?

    Frankly, I think the problem with all of the statements you listed above is that they are ad hominem attacks. An ad hominem attack is inherently wrong, because it attacks the speaker’s person rather than his ideas. As such, it dismisses the person.

    I’ve recently become much more vocal on Facebook and Twitter. On Twitter I’ve found that when someone cannot refute me, he or she will often choose to insult me. For example, last night in a discussion of the Cranston Prayer Banner decision, I received a tweet that said, “your also a fat ugly bitch but hey #freedomofspeech allows me to say that! Goodnight”. In any discussion, even one where someone is patently disingenuous, both sides can learn something if they are willing to listen. These statements shut down listening. The prevent learning. And they prevent teaching, which is, I hope, our goal in any conversation.

    Now, interesting point. I decided just now, for the heck of it, to find a few of these phrases and see them in context. And the first one I chose, the one about the “man-child” lead me to the article. It was the story of an atheist’s encounter with a man who was mentally retarded. And yes, I realize I am using an outdated and frowned upon term. It’s a medically accurate one, and I don’t feel the new politically correct term is as specific. The man in question is not “developmentally delayed,” which implies that, like someone with dyslexia or dyscalculia, with extra coaching he might achieve grade-level normal.

    And the amusing thing about your selection of that quote is that it did not, to my mind, demean or belittle the man at all. The author treated him like a human being and respected his abilities–limited though they were–and his efforts. The author didn’t shy away from the man, avoid him, or make him uncomfortable for his inabilities. In fact the author gave the man a chance to be useful, and paid him for his services.

    I understand that medical terms that describe people’s limitations should not be used to criticize other people’s arguments. I just see a lot more wrong with this essay than the fact that one person has called another person and his ideas “retarded.”

    • “Frankly, I think the problem with all of the statements you listed above is that they are ad hominem attacks.”
      Which is precisely my point – how can they be ad hominem attacks if it’s not bad to be lame or idiotic, for example.
      “These statements shut down listening. The prevent learning. And they prevent teaching, which is, I hope, our goal in any conversation.”
      And they also are a huge red flag to people with disabilities that this place may not be safe for them. And I don’t think that it’s automatically an indication that a person doesn’t care about people with disabilities who uses these words. But people who go the extra mile to not use these words are also advertising that they believe that people matter more than words. That opening our arms to people with disabilities takes higher priority than clinging to the usage of a few words.

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