Ableism in Atheism

Christina here…

Photo of a silhouetted man standing, holding a complicated walking orthosis up to a person in a wheelchair.

img from:

Ableism is a form of discrimination or social prejudice against people with disabilities. It occurs when people/society gives preferential treatment to people who appear able-bodied.

Ableism takes many forms, from when people render environments inaccessible to people with disabilities (think of the people who said, “why would I need to build a ramp to my business, no people in wheelchairs have ever come here! when the ADA was enacted), to the use of terms such as “autistic”, “retarded” or “cripple” in language as an insult. Or, ableism can occur people treat anyone falling outside of the neurotypical-able bodied spectrum as someone who a priori needs fixing. It also happens when people harbor the attitude that people with disabilities can’t function as full members of society.

My friend The Nerd recently wrote about ableism on hir blog. Ze pointed out some ableist language said by atheists to other atheists:

“You are so literal as to be autistic. Are you really that stupid?”

Ze writes:

If we really want atheism without barriers, we have to cut out the ableist language, now. This includes ending the crazy-bashing of Christians, because if an atheist with a mental disorder walks into a room where people are casually tossing around the words “crazy”, “retarded”, “idiotic”, etc, ze’s going to feel under attack.

I’ll be honest: I am unsure if I share The Nerd’s sentiment about the use of the word “crazy”. JT and I have both referred to ourselves as crazy, loons, and mentally ill (We’re both diagnosed, yo), but JT has also referred to certain religious behaviors as “crazy”. Was he being ableist? I’m not entirely sure, so I’d like to hear some discussion about that.

I usually don’t call people crazy or insane because doing so marginalizes people with mental illnesses, is unpersuasive (really, the last time someone called an atheist crazy, did you go, “oh crap, you’re right!” or did you go, “wow, this person is a jerk.”? I don’t think anyone has ever persuaded someone due to calling their opposition crazy.)

We’ve seen ableism on this blog: for example, a few commenters have claimed that no one should listen to JT because of his mental illness:

Bertram Cabot: JT is an atheist with admitted mental problems. I sympathize, but why do we have to have such a self absorbed nutcase as a spokesman for atheists?  At least get rid of that horrible picture, JT. It brings out the insanity in your eyes too much.




Sean says: JT, your post is an excellent straw man.  And I found out you REALLY ARE mentally ill; incredible that atheists listen to you.




I’m an occupational therapist, so in my clinical practice, every one of my clients has at least one disabling condition. My biomechanics research also looks at the same population, and I have lots of friends with disabilities as well. About 1 in 5 people have a disability. The vast majority of those disabilities are the type found between the ears. Even if you don’t have a disability yourself – you might one day, and you surely know someone who does.

We’ve already advocated for taking up the cause of ending stigma against mental illness in the skeptic/atheist community, and I think we need to end ableism in the skeptic/atheist community in general. You can help:

Andy is looking to gather a little more information about ableism in atheism, so be a doll and go take this survey about ableism in atheism, will you? It’s not long, so will only take a few minutes of your time:

Ableism in Atheism Survey

Ableism exists in part due to the notion that people with disabilities need to be fixed or molded into the environment, rather than the idea that the environment should be fixed or molded to include people with a wide range of differences.

As far as physical disabilities go, I’ve noticed that most large atheist events/gatherings are accessible, though smaller events might not. Some of our local events in St. Louis have been in basements, down flights of stairs. I’ve never seen a sign language interpreter at a large atheist event (hey Reason Rally… will you have one? You should, if it’s going to be the Woodstock of atheism.). Do bloggers format blog posts and websites so they are readable by screen readers? How about your pictures? Do you include alt-text or caption such that people with visual disabilities using screen readers have a description of your picture?

While we tend to be pretty inclusive on matters of neurodiversity, I think we can do more.

Learn more about Christina and follow her @ziztur.

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