Ableism in its simplest form, is discrimination toward disabled people. But it encompasses so much more than what you might assume. The belief and treatment of disabled people as “less than” is so deeply engrained in our culture that it can be hard to recognize ableism in our daily lives, which can also make it frighteningly easy to slip into.
Even disabled people can be unknowingly ableist. Over the last several months, I’ve come to realize that so much of my language and actions are ableist, and I didn’t know. But now that I do, I’m working on changing them.
But how do we know if we are using ableist language or creating environments that perpetuate ableism? To answer this question, I am not relying on my own perspective or experience, but on the collective knowledge of the greater disability community.
This post, as you’ll realize if you click over to this wonderful resource by Access Living is my primary reference for information on the basics of ableism. I’m no authority–I won’t try to reinvent the wheel. But they are by no means the only one. So, just as I will, I encourage you to continue to research, learn and grow in order to stand up against ableism. Please note, that as I share portions from the Access Living website, I may summarize, shorten or omit certain pieces for brevity’s sake.
Ableism: In General
Let’s start with a few of the more general ways in which we as a society can, are, and continue to be ableist. Let’s take a look:
- Lack of compliance with disability rights laws
- Segregating students with disabilities into separate schools
- The use of restraint or seclusion as a means of controlling students with disabilities
- Failing to incorporate accessibility into building design plans
- Building inaccessible websites
- The assumption that people with disabilities want or need to be “fixed”
- Using disability as a punchline
- Refusing to provide reasonable accommodations
- The eugenics movement of the early 1900s
- The mass murder of disabled people in Nazi Germany
Ableism: In the Every Day
If you look at that list and think “but I haven’t done any of that,” you may be right. Ableism is often unintentional. But even unintentional ableism is still harmful to the disabled community and to our fight for equality. That’s precisely why I’m drawing attention to it in this way, because we can all do better, and need to do better. But we can’t until we know where we’ve gone wrong. So please allow me to share with you some further ways that we as a society have practiced ableism. And if you see yourself on this list, you’re not alone–I do, too.
- Choosing an inaccessible venue for an event, therefore excluding disabled participants
- Using someone else’s mobility device as a hand or foot rest
- Framing disability as either tragic or inspirational in news stories, movies, and other forms of media
- Casting a non-disabled actor to play a disabled character in entertainment
- Making a movie that doesn’t have audio description or closed captioning
- Using the accessible bathroom stall when you are able to use the non-accessible stall without pain or risk of injury
- Talking to a person with a disability like they are a child, talking about them instead of directly to them, or speaking for them
- Asking invasive questions about the medical history of someone with a disability
- Assuming people have to have a visible disability to be disabled
- Questioning if someone is “actually” disabled, or “how” disabled they are
- Asking, “How did you become disabled?”
Micro-aggression is a term I only heard after joining the broader disability space on social media, and what it refers to explains so much of my past that I hadn’t had words to articulate before.
“Micro-aggressions are everyday verbal or behavioral expressions that communicate a negative slight or insult” in reference to a person’s disability. And it’s in this form that I’ve been the most guilty, and where I’m working on change. The words we use have so much power, and I don’t ever want my words to be used as weapons or instruments of ableism. There are more–oh so many more–examples of ableist micro-aggressions, but I’ll share with you this brief list which we can use as a springboard for further change.
- “That’s so lame.”
- “You are so retarded.”
- “That guy is crazy.”
- “You’re acting so bi-polar today.”
- “Are you off your meds?”
- “It’s like the blind leading the blind.”
- “My ideas fell on deaf ears.”
- “She’s such a psycho.”
- “I’m super OCD about how I clean my apartment.”
- “I don’t even think of you as disabled.”
How Can We Get Better?
All is not lost. It’s abysmal reading through only SOME of the ways that our world has been and continues to prcipitate ableism against people with disabilities. But there are things that we can do. There are ways to change and become better allies, fellow humans and let disabled people know how valuable and worthy they are. Here are just a few:
- Believe people when they disclose a disability
- Don’t accuse people of faking their disability
- Listen to people when they request an accommodation
- Don’t assume you know what someone needs
- Never touch a person with a disability or their mobility equipment without consent
- Keep invasive questions to yourself
- Don’t speak on behalf of someone with a disability unless they explicitly ask you to
- Talk about disability with children and young people
- Incorporate accessibility into your event planning
Ableism is like anything else–something that needs to change but can only be done once we know how to change and are willing to put in the effort to make it happen.
What forms of ableism have you experienced? Let me know in the comments so we can find ways to ensure it never happens again.