What do Ableism and Ableist mean?

A man in a wheelchair is separated from the crowd by a low concrete barrier. Ableism and ableist.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.

• Placing different disabilities in a hierarchy of “severity” or relative value. 

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:

• Disabled people get good parking spaces, discounts, and all kinds of other little unearned favors.

• Unlike other marginalised groups, 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.

Overcoming ableism: challenging values

Small golden stars scattered on a table. Overcoming ableism challenges values.Overcoming ableism takes more than attending a disability awareness workshop. It’s also more than checking out the right words to use when talking about disability. If things are to change for people with disability, we have to challenge values and assumptions. 

Andrew Pulrang writes that the stereotype of people with disability is one of fragility and weakness – it’s associated with illness. Disability services are ‘care’ services, not just services for practical assistance. Workplaces assume people with disability can’t handle the pressures of work. 

He concludes his article with, “The roots of ableism run deep. Sometimes to get at them we have to dig deeper, and disrupt not just our habits, but some of our most basic ways of thinking.” 

The title of Pulrang’s article is, Fighting Ableism Requires Us To Challenge Some Of Our Most Cherished Values

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. 

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