Disability rights, accessibility and inclusion have come a long way. But we are not there yet. Despite legislation, public policy statements, and access standards, it’s taken more than 50 years to get to this point. Ableism and ableist attitudes are alive and well. Yet many people aren’t aware of how this undermines inclusion and equitable treatment. The same goes for ageism.
An article in Forbes magazine sums up the sentiments well. The word ‘ableism’ gives voice and substance to real experiences. But it can also discredit people for an offensiveness they don’t see or don’t agree exists. The title of the article is, Words Matter, And It’s Time To Explore The Meaning Of “Ableism.”
The Wikipedia definition explains: “Ableism is discrimination and social prejudice against people with disabilities or who are perceived to have disabilities. Ableism characterizes persons as defined by their disabilities and as inferior to the non-disabled. On this basis, people are assigned or denied certain perceived abilities, skills, or character orientations.”
Ableism is expressed in ideas and assumptions, stereotypes, attitudes and practices. Physical and social barriers in the environment is also a form of ableism. Usually it is unintentional and most people are completely unaware of the impact of their words or actions.
Different types of ableism
Andrew Pulrang discusses both personal and systemic ableism. Here is his list on personal ableism.
1. Feeling instinctively uncomfortable around disabled people, or anyone who seems “strange” in ways that might be connected to a disability of some kind. This manifests in hundreds of ways, and can include:
• Being nervous, clumsy, and awkward around people in wheelchairs.
• Being viscerally disgusted by people whose bodies appear to be very different or “deformed.”
• Avoiding talking to disabled people in order to avoid some kind of feared embarrassment.
2. Holding stereotypical views about disabled people in general, or about certain sub-groups of disabled people. For example:
• Assuming that disabled people’s personalities fit into just a few main categories, like sad and pitiful, cheerful and innocent, or bitter and complaining.
• Associating specific stereotypes with particular conditions. For example, that people with Down Syndrome are happy, friendly, and naive, mentally ill people are unpredictable and dangerous, or autistic people are cold, tactless, and unknowable.
• Placing different disabilities in a hierarchy of “severity” or relative value. There is a widely held belief, even among disabled people, that physical disability isn’t so bad because at least there’s “nothing wrong with your mind.”
3. Resenting disabled people for advantages or privileges you think they have as a group. This is one of the main flip sides of condescension and sentimentality towards disabled people. It’s driven by a combination of petty everyday resentments and false, dark, and quasi-political convictions, such as:
• Disabled people get good parking spaces, discounts, and all kinds of other little unearned favors.
• Unlike other “minorities,” everyone likes and supports disabled people. They aren’t oppressed, they are coddled.
• Disabled people don’t have to work and get government benefits for life.
A last word
Pulrang concludes with a few reminders. People with disability can be ableist too. They grew up in an ableist society. Ableism isn’t a new ‘ism’ – it is a word that sums up longstanding oppression and injustice. So when it is used, don’t take it as an insult. Ableism is a way of talking about a set of real experiences that people with disability experience. It’s a way to talk about them.