Addressing disablism at The F-Word

The F-Word is committed to taking an intersectional approach to feminism. We recognise that additional forms of oppression, as well as sexism, must be tackled in order to achieve women’s liberation. We therefore aim to not only publish pieces addressing these various oppressions but to also do all we can to avoid perpetuating them in any material we publish. One of these oppressions is disablism: discrimination against disabled people. This is an important issue that urgently needs to be tackled, and especially so in the light of the current demonisation, exploitation and mistreatment of disabled people.

Last year, blogger Philippa Willitts looked at how The F-Word might appear to disabled people who aren’t familiar with the site. She focused on instances of disablist language on the site and the visual representation of disabled people in the images we use.

For the first measure, Philippa searched the site for 22 different words associated with disability. Some were related to particular impairments, while others are words that can be used as insults or be reclaimed by disabled people. Unfortunately our search function does not work perfectly, but Philippa found it turned up enough features, reviews and blog posts to paint a reliable picture of the language used on the site. Her search identified:

  • 426 instances of disablist language across the site
  • 93 instances of accurate usage of language associated with disability, or of negative usage that was challenged
  • 33 instances that were unclear or questionable.

This is unacceptable. A lot of these past posts and comments containing disablist language are from many years ago but, unfortunately, we’ve sometimes got it wrong more recently. We have left these posts as they are for the sake of transparency and historical accuracy but have been working to make sure we don’t slip up again.

Philippa also examined the images used in 100 different blog posts to see if any of the people in the images were visibly disabled:

Obviously this is only looking at people with visible impairments, which is only the case for a proportion of disabled people. However, it shows how well we are doing at providing visible representation of disabled people, in a way in which disabled people could find any kind of recognition of themselves or people like them on our pages. Even people whose impairments are hidden or invisible can take visual cues from images of more visibly disabled people to gauge how welcome they are somewhere.

Philippa found 81 people in the images used in the 100 posts she selected. Not a single person was visibly disabled in Pippa’s sample while, in contrast, 50% of the images in a selection of 20 posts specifically on the topic of disability featured people with visible impairments. Philippa concludes:

This shows that there are images of disabled women available, because we use them on relevant posts.

What we are not doing is thinking of disabled women when we are talking about black women or abortion or violence against women. It suggests that when we think about abortion rights or domestic violence or racism, we don’t think of disabled women. That disabled women are too busy being disabled to also be a woman.

Once again, these findings are unacceptable. The F-Word aims to represent a wide range of feminists and this should be reflected in the images we use.

After Philippa shared her report with the rest of the team, we set up a Disablism Working Group to address her findings and identify ways of improving how we tackle disablism at The F-Word. The group has agreed on the following actions:

  • We will ensure that all our guidelines for contributors and style guides explicitly highlight the need to avoid disablist language, providing examples and explanations for clarity; where guidelines exist already, the standard will be explained and reiterated.
  • Following on from this, we will challenge and edit articles/comments that perpetuate micro-aggressions, such as labelling ‘bad people’ (from those who we disagree with to violent criminals) as mentally ill or intellectually impaired.
  • We will create a position statement on disablism, similar to our statement on transphobia.
  • We will continue to seek out more disabled contributors.
  • We will actively seek out images of disabled people and build these into any resource we develop for site use, to make sure we use these images across the board and not just to illustrate pieces on disability. In addition, we will be considerate in our use of images to illustrate pieces on non-visible disabilities, avoiding those that stereotype.
  • We will investigate what an accessibility audit would cost and decide whether to undertake one and, if so, how we will raise funds for it.

We would also very much like to hear from readers who have any further suggestions as to how we can tackle disablism and make The F-Word more accessible to and inclusive of disabled people. You can get in touch by emailing [email protected], via Twitter or Facebook, or by commenting below. For reference, actions we have already taken include:

  • providing image descriptions
  • providing video transcripts and descriptions (with a commitment to improving on this)
  • blogging about disablism
  • explicitly requesting disabled contributors in our guest blogger call-outs
  • not publishing comments containing disablist language
  • highlighting the issue of disablist language in our style guide and advising editors to remove it from posts.

We would like to thank Philippa for the work she put into producing the report, particularly given that a feminist environment should be supportive of disabled people and not leave all the work of addressing intersecting oppressions to those who face them. We are actively committed to changing that environment for the better.

Here is some recommended reading around this:

Another reason to avoid exclusionary language

Watching your words isn’t just about a no-no list. In fact, if that’s all you think it is, you are completely missing the point of this discussion. It’s about really thinking about the way in which you use language, and what you mean when you say things. And, ultimately? It’s going to make you a better debater, and writer, and speaker, and communicator, when you can be more precise about how you use language. When you can force yourself to explore the meanings of things, and to think, clearly, about what it is that you want to express with the words which you are using.

Language Matters: Reclamatory Language and Word Use

Missing the Point on Language

Language Matters: Language Matters, But It’s Not the Most Important Thing

The good type of insult

Doing Social Justice: Thoughts on Ableist Language and Why It Matters (This is a US article, so it uses the word ‘ableist’)

To end with, we’d like to turn to our readers with an idea.

Following on from our commitment to actively seeking out images of disabled people and build these into a resource, one of our writers has pointed out the following:

One of the problems of diverse representation within stock images is that women with marginalised bodies have reasons to fear putting images of themselves up for use in any context. [The F-Word could set up] something like a Flickr group where F-word readers and others could place their photos or art, which would hopefully include images of a broad group of women, with permission for use on the site, with accreditation…

At the moment, this is an idea we are exploring and are interested to hear from people who might like to contribute. If you would like to be involved with this, please email [email protected] or comment on this post (adding a note if it’s just intended for us to see and not for publication).

The image shows ‘El Cuentito’, a painting by Petrona Viera that is in the public domain, sourced via Wikimedia Commons. Petrona Viera was a d/Deaf painter, born in Uruguay and alive 1895-1960. The painting shows two women sitting on a bench facing each other in a park, a tree casting a shadow over them. It is bright and stylised.