Why Saying “Sleepy Joe” Reinforces Ableism

Let’s stop ‘tolerating’ or ‘accepting’ difference, as if we’re so much better for not being different in the first place. Instead, let’s celebrate difference, because in this world it takes a lot of guts to be different.

Kate Bornstein, American author, playwright, performance artist, actor, and gender theorist

Our nation’s 45th president, Donald Trump, leapt to attack then-candidate Joe Biden for his deliberative speech patterns and mistakes during campaign rallies and speeches, ascribing him the moniker “Sleepy Joe.” Conservative media and right-wing websites and social media latched onto this like my parents’ dogs when I take out a Beggin Strip (sweet, chewy BACCCCOONNNNNNN…hmm…maybe I’ll make pancakes and bacon this weekend…see how easy my chunk brain follows that train of thought? Sorry about that.)

Video from The Telegraph, a national British news organization

Not that I’m surprised certainly. Trump made his campaigns and presidency about distancing America from the “other:” insulting Gold Star families, instituting travel bans on Muslim individuals, instituting policies that physically separated children from their families at the United States/Mexico border and detaining them in horrific conditions, rolling back rights afforded to transgender individuals, referring to COVID-19 as the “China Virus” and “Kung Flu,” and, of course, mocking disabled individuals (video below). I could keep listing, but that would take me until the end of my natural life and probably then some.

Video from CNN

Okay, so, let me get real authentic for a moment. You can ask one of my besties, Vicki Van Hise, a triumphant fierce advocate for those who are differently-abled, that I’ve struggled with my own biases around disability in the past. I was a younger, burgeoning social justice-minded professional starting my journey as a professor, and I was pretty pissed off about what I thought were academic accommodations that were actually hurting students more than helping. I argued that we weren’t preparing students for the real world if we kept “giving them extra time to do tasks.” “That’s just not how it works, Vicki. Bosses don’t give a shit about you–do the work, meet the quota, no excuses,” I said.

What didn’t happen…

Thankfully, Vicki swallowed back her Mama Bear-ness, and asked me probing and clarifying questions. Since I already had a trusting relationship with Vicki, she knew that she could push me. She helped me to see how those with disabilities face tremendous levels of oppression, especially those who have invisible disabilities. It was easy for me to grasp physical accommodations–I could see them! Obviously it was horrendous that a building didn’t have an accessible entrance or that the elevators didn’t work or that a student wasn’t being given certain accommodations for a visual impairment. But come on, extra time on a test? What the hell was that about??? Thanks to her guidance I began to explore my own biases, coming to the realization that I was putting a bunch of shit on others because of my identity as an “intellectual.” To me, if a student achieved the same grades as I did, earning the same degrees I had, but they had EXTRA HELP, my degree was cheapened. Frankly, a really fucked up paradigm to have.

Okay, so now, on to President Biden.

When the “Sleepy Joe” nickname started trending, I wasn’t surprised. Trump had collected billions of media imprints cruelly insulting his political foes. What I was shocked by was that that President Biden has a stutter. Full stop.


Fast forward to yesterday (yeah, wrap your brain around that one…) Of course, conservative media began putting out stories that Biden was making it up.

I would think that most rational people have already seen through the Fox News veneer; however, according to Nielsen, in February, primetime Fox News (such as Hannity, where the insane conspiracy theory I referenced above began), had the highest average of daily viewers (2.47 million; followed by MSNBC at 2.19 million, and CNN with 1.69 million). People actually trust these shows as a legitimate NEWS SOURCE. In full transparency, I’m an MSNBC junkie (I’m watching Morning Joe right now as I type this); however, when I watch The Rachel Maddow Show, I’m consuming opinion and fact-based reporting from a person who holds a Ph.D. in political science from Oxford University. Hannity dropped out of three colleges.

The damage that Hannity causes is tremendous. His abelist views only reinforce individuals to believe that everyone different is out to get them, the “rightful” power brokers: White, Christian, heterosexual, able-bodied, men. “They are going to come for you! They are coming for your guns! Your way of life! The AMERICAN WAY!” is good subtext for his rants and conspiracy theories. Left unchecked, these views only become reinforced through echo chambers and confirmation bias (a social psychology term to describe the tendency to seek out and interpret new information that reinforces already existing beliefs).

What do we do about it? We have to engage. We have to push back on misinformation and biases when they are vocalized AND when they aren’t. Challenge our friends. Our families. And yes, sometimes, strangers on the Internet. I know, I know…arguing with people like that rarely changes minds, but is it really about that? Or is it about combating ableist views in the public sphere so that others see your advocacy and know that they are not alone? How will you use your privileges to change hearts, minds, and, ultimately, the systems that those with hearts and minds create?

Keith Haring Ignorance = Fear/Silence = Death (The Whitney Museum of American Art)

As Keith Haring brilliantly portrayed, silence does equal death. In the era when this print was released, the fight was for recognition of the impact of HIV/AIDS on the gay community. But silence is like a cancer. It will invade everything until it is the norm. Help break the norm. Say something. Even if it’s hard.

Leave safety behind. Put your body on the line. Stand before the people you fear and speak your mind – even if your voice shakes. When you least expect it, someone may actually listen to what you have to say. Well-aimed slingshots can topple giants. And do your homework.

Maggie Kahn, founder of the Gray Panthers

One thought on “Why Saying “Sleepy Joe” Reinforces Ableism

  1. Thank you for writing this important piece, for sharing your journey from ableist to anti-ableism. This is especially important within the academy.
    Always proud to be your partner in growth in dismantling oppression. Always.👏👏❤❤


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