By Munaka Munyai
This article is exclusive to the Online Edition 9 of VARSITY News.
The tragic murder of 16-year-old Nathaniel Julius on the 26th of August at the whim of South African law enforcement served as a dual display of violence to the country and media. On the first level, the overt use of brutality by law enforcement is an unfortunate reality South Africans have become accustomed to fearing and expecting. On the other level the event was also bolstered by a less acknowledged yet equally violent level of ableism.
The unarmed Nathaniel’s context becomes especially disturbing when it reveals that the aggravation of brutality by officers on a 16-year-old was because he was ‘differently abled’ to the socially and systemically expected and enforced hegemony of ability. This hegemony is pedestalled as ‘normalcy’ whilst any and every other variation of existence and ability is dismissed to the periphery of “abnormal”, “disabled” etc.
The violence that exudes from the oppressive and exclusionary repertoire of ableism permeates and manifests violently into daily life activities. It reduces humanity to ability; limits the accessibility that people with disabilities have to facilities, society, healthcare etc. It also devalues the livelihood of people who are perceived as ‘anomalous’ to ableist hegemony by violently degrading them with slurs and attacks. The experiences people with disabilities have in society is quintessentially their reduction as people who are “disposable” or need “to be fixed” in the ‘best’ case scenario or murdered in the worst-case scenario.
Ableism isn’t far-fetched. The glamorised “ps*cho/cr*zy girl” trope in Taylor Swift songs; the “are you blind”, “uh did I stutter?” and “tone-deaf” hyperbolic references on Twitter and even ‘comedic’ inferences to wearing glasses are all instances of microaggressive invalidation and the main-streaming ableism. In the media, ableism is exacerbated when there is an unchecked, nuanced and wide-spread use of ableist language by celebrities and social media. The mental and physical assignment of human value to ability pervades language and serves as an invalidation to the experiences of people with disabilities.
By now, one ought to even realise the mainstreamed ableist aggression that appears in the school system where speech rubrics that deduct marks according to how often you stutter or fidget (stinting). The other example may be the severe degradation of people’s whole lives being reduced to a “disability” that renders them as inspirational/pity porn in order to gain any sense of adequacy or respect.
Ableism and its mainstreaming appear in many spheres and there is need for movements of social progression to foreground those experiences of people with disabilities in order to make substantive social change. It shouldn’t take the life of people like Nathaniel Julius to realise and confront that.
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