We all love a bit of George Takei, don’t we? Of all the celebrities on social media; he probably wins for using it most effectively. Well, possibly second only to Stephen Fry. “Successful social media strategist” must be on the same bit of twizzly DNA as the gay gene. It would explain how I’ve managed to get more than 2,000 Twitter followers despite mostly just moaning about the waiting times at my doctors’ surgery.
I’m grateful for his outspokenness on matters relating to LGBT equality. His pictures frequently made me roar with laughter. Until this weekend when the laughter stopped.
On Saturday Takei posted on both Facebook and Twitter an image of a wheelchair-using woman standing up to reach something from the top shelf in a store. The picture is captioned “there has been a miracle in the alcohol isle” [sic].
I know Takei didn’t create the meme, I’d seen it before this weekend. But he has 1.3million Twitter followers and nearly 7.4million Facebook fans. He introduced a sum total of 8.7million people to this image.
Lots of disabled people were offended by this post and the harassment it encourages and told him so. This prompted a follow up post from Takei saying:
Fans get “offended” from time to time by my posts. There hardly is a day where something I put up doesn’t engender controversy. Concerned fans, worried the sky may fall, ask me to “take it down.”
So I’m also going to ask them also to take it down – a notch, please.
I wasn’t one of the people who asked him to take it down, I hadn’t actually seen the original post until after I saw the “ner ner screw you” statement.
I had no concerns about falling skies, but what I did have was a fear of disablist hate crime being escalated. A fear that’s not unfounded.
There’s this huge misconception that if you can stand up for even a second, you must be faking your impairment. For that matter; you get called a “faker” if you can move your legs at all. I remember once, long ago in my stand-up days, I was on stage in my wheelchair and I crossed my legs. I didn’t even notice I’d done it; I guess I must have been slightly uncomfortable so the subconscious part of my brain decided to do something about it.
This prompted a heckler to shout “Faker! You moved your leg!”
I had a microphone and a smart mouth. It doesn’t take a genius to guess who came off the worst in that situation. Even his girlfriend looked ashamed to be seen with him. I was lucky I had an audience on my side. That’s not always the case when people move their legs. Sarah said to me “I once had a woman come running over from the other side of the shop literally screaming “I saw you move your leg, you ****”. Luckily there were other people around or it would have been terrifying.” On the subject of Takei she added “People simply don’t realise the damage this sort of “joke” can lead to. (or don’t want to believe it)”
I have a condition that means that my bones break easily and my tendons and ligaments aren’t strong enough to do their job. Most people have tendons and ligaments that are like sturdy string: They have the tensile strength to make sure joints only bend in the direction they’re supposed to, and they’re also strong enough to stop the joint from dislocating. Not me: All my joints have either been shattered or they bend backwards. And occasionally sideways or in other directions joints generally aren’t supposed to go. Last Friday I managed to dislocate my knee by opening a window.
So I use a wheelchair a lot of the time because walking on smashed-up joints hurts. Walking with knees that bend backwards hurts. After a while my joints swell up so much from all the strain exerted on them that they just stop moving at all. It’s not only for pain purposes that I use a chair: I’m only physically capable of walking extremely slowly and having such wobbly joints means you could knock me over by breathing in my general direction. And when I hit the floor I almost always manage to break at least one bone. I’m 35 years old and have had roughly 75 fractures.
But – despite needing a wheelchair for anything more than a couple of steps – I can stand up to reach something from a supermarket shelf. The person being mocked in that meme could so easily have been me. It’s sheer luck that it wasn’t.
My friend Jack has experienced abuse while doing the shopping. He said “I’ve had people get quite abusive because of doing this, all of a sudden because I can stand I’m a scrounger, shirker and many more other horrible names.”
Another friend, D H Kelly, has learned to self-police to avoid getting grief: “I’ve not been abused but get more glares and mumbles than I could count. I’ve known to linger suspiciously for an inordinate amount of time until the supermarket aisle has cleared so I can stand and reach for the yoghurt without being noticed.” She lives more rurally than me. Living in Central London I’d be sat there until about 4am if I waited for the aisle to empty of people before standing up to get something.
Supermarkets aren’t the only place where disabled people aren’t allowed to stand up without the risk of mumbles, verbal abuse, or ending up an internet meme with 8.7 million people laughing at you. Abbi told me that “the train station where I live is unmanned so I have to get out without a ramp. Usually my brother is waiting for me on the platform to help me off, but sometimes he’s not there in time, so I’ll step out and pull my chair down after me. Other passengers will almost always help me lift the chair out, but on occasion – usually in the evening when people have been drinking – I do get dirty looks, and have been told I’m faking or ‘milking it’. I try not to pay much attention, because I’m so often amazed by how helpful complete strangers can be in that kind of situation, but it is upsetting. It’s hard enough trying to navigate inaccessible situations alone, which can be both stressful and painful, without being openly abused for it.”
My friend Charlotte said “One of the most upsetting encounters was when someone told me I was a waste of the NHS’ money and clearly wasn’t disabled because I was pushing my empty wheelchair / leaning on it for support across the grass.”
Lisa Hammond told me that comments she’s heard include “are you just lazy?” And “oh my god you’re such a faker.”
This ongoing background noise of bullying for existing while disabled is unpleasant enough. But it can get so much more serious than just verbal remarks.
My friend Pippa walks with a crutch. She was once followed home by someone yelling “f***ing DLA stick” at her. Can you imagine how vulnerable you would feel with someone like that knowing where you live?
My friend David was one of the disabled people that posted in reply to Takei on Facebook. He explained in his comment “I’ve been physically assaulted for walking while disabled, I’m well into double figures with verbal abuse, usually claiming I’m faking my disability for welfare fraud. And that’s pretty much a typical experience for all my disabled friends. Having influential figures like George Takei publishing a meme that reinforces disabled=fake is incredibly damaging to disabled people.”
Adam said that the attacks calling him “a scrounger and fraudster have become beyond the joke. I have even had to face an audit under Caution by [JobCentre Plus] when someone contacted benefit fraud line to say I was not as disabled as I made out to be.”
Adam’s not alone. In fact 96% of calls to the National Benefit Fraud Hotline are malicious or timewasting. That’s a lot of people really putting a lot of effort into their disablist harassment to make sure their victims suffer as much as possible. I bet they all found the meme Takei shared to be hilarious.
The really galling thing about all of this is that just 3 months ago Takei received an award for making “a significant difference in promoting equality.” Condoning and encouraging the bullying of disabled people does not promote equality. Far from it.
I’m not perfect. I know I’ve said offensive things in the past. Sometimes without thinking, and sometimes because I didn’t understand the issues involved. When people point out that what I’ve said is offensive, I apologise and try to learn from the situation. I’m hoping that Takei didn’t mean harm when he first shared that picture. I’m hoping that he shared it out of ignorance. Perhaps he genuinely thought that all wheelchair users are completely unable to stand up. Perhaps he didn’t realise just how much harassment disabled people face for trying to do such a simple thing as going to the supermarket.
Where he really screwed up was in his refusal to back down when countless people commented on the post explaining how offensive it was. Plenty of people shared their experiences of being on the receiving end of disablist bullying; a fire Takei was liberally pouring fuel onto. His reaction wasn’t to learn from what people were saying, it was to tell the victims of harassment to “take it down – a notch”. I wonder if he’d say the same thing to gay people telling him about their experiences of homophobic bullying for having the audacity to be true to themselves in the supermarket?
Since this weekend he’s posted this cartoon satirising discrimination against gay people, adding his own comment that so much bigotry and discrimination comes down “it’s icky”. As a gay person I’m deeply grateful that someone so prominent is so defensive of my (recently won) right to marry. But put into the context of his post mocking disabled people four days earlier my first thought was “I guess he thinks I’m icky then.”
In the UK around 18% of the population overall have some kind of impairment. But this rises to 45% of people over state pension age. I’m guessing that the figures are roughly similar in the US.
Takei is 77. If he hasn’t yet acquired an age-related impairment like arthritis, the chances are reasonable that he might at some point. A lot of older people with arthritis, like my late nan, are able to walk short distances, but need to use a mobility aid for longer journeys like the trek around a giant supermarket. If Takei – or one of his friends or relatives for that matter – was just trying to do the weekly shop and stood up for a second to grab a bottle of wine to serve with lunch, and ended up being a joke that 8.7million people were laughing at: I wonder if he’d still find it so funny?