Ableism: What It Is, and How You Can Avoid It

This blog was written and researched by Joseph Maley Foundation Communications Associate, Lauren Maley

 

What is ableism? What does it look like? How can we make sure we’re not using ableist language and actions?

With the beginning of April comes the end of Disability Awareness Month, and while a month-long focus on disability awareness is a great thing for our communities, it’s important that we work to educate ourselves year-round, and recognize the ways in which the disability community faces discrimination and hardships through ingrained ableism. You may have heard the term “ableism” before, or perhaps this is the first time you are hearing about it. It may even be a word you use on a regular basis. Regardless of your familiarity with it, ableism is an extremely important concept in the disabled community.

Ableism is defined as “discrimination in favor of able-bodied people.” With such a definition, you may find yourself asking questions like:

  • What does that mean exactly?
  • What is the background and history behind the word?
  • How is the term applied and used today?

 

“Able-bodied” means pretty much what it sounds like. Someone who is able-bodied suffers from no invisible illnesses that hamper their ability to function on a daily basis; they are physically able to do all normal activities without assistance from others, medication, treatments, or adaptive equipment. If you are disabled or you are caring for someone disabled, you know that American society is heavily structured around an abled body. If you are not disabled, or caring for a disabled person, you may have no idea. The hard truth is that much of our culture is built around the idea that some people are “less than,” or incomplete, or in need of fixing in some way. It classifies entire groups of people by their disability by use of misconceptions, harmful representations, stereotypes, and generalizations. With ableism, there is often also a complete obliviousness, disregard, ignorance, or discomfort and avoidance as well.

The term has been around for a very long time, but really only started to be used in literature in the 1980’s in discussion of the Holocaust, when talks of eugenics and mass murder of disabled folks were described as a form of ableism. In a broad sense, ableism has applied or can apply to many groups of people that are persecuted for not being the ideal body type in any way, shape, or form, for a society. As activism and disability awareness has grown along with other movements in society that are fighting against discrimination, ableism is to disability discrimination as racism is to racial discrimination, and gaining the same traction in society as sexism, homophobia, transphobia, anti-semitism, and other causes where groups of people are treated as less than equal.

Ableism also applies to, and is used by, mental health rights advocates – as mental health issues very frequently overlap with disabilities, can be or are caused by some invisible illnesses, or are debilitating on their own. The walls that have divided mental health and physical health are slowly beginning to come down, as more and more doctors and psychiatrists are realizing just how connected the brain and body truly are.

Today, ableism has been fully adopted by the disability (and oftentimes mental health) community to bring awareness to how to better treat those with disabilities, and the work that needs to be advocated for. You may think that there is a lot already to help those who are disabled in society. There are, in some cases, special circumstances for some of those with disabilities, such as larger adapted bathrooms, ramps, closer parking, braille, ADA requirements, etc. However, these are few and far between, are not enough, and really only consider those with physical or visible disabilities. In order to grasp what ableism really looks like, on several levels, we have to look at all forms of disability. This includes the visible disabilities, but also invisible disabilities and illnesses, ones from birth and those that develop later in life, rare and more common disabilities, ones that are constant or that come and go, and ones that affect groups of people that are already discriminated against.

On a larger scale, ableism can look like:

  • A lack of compliance with ADA and disability rights laws
  • Segregating students with disabilities into different schools
  • Institutionalization of adults or students with disabilities
  • Using restraints as a means of control on someone with a disability
  • Failings to incorporate accessibility on a building plan
  • Buildings without braille on signs
  • Assuming people with disabilities want or need to be fixed
  • Using disability as a punchline for a joke or mocking a disability
  • Refusing to accommodate anyone with disabilities

 

Additionally, there exists the more “everyday” ableism, or more “minor’”ableism that those with a disability frequently face. There are so many instances of this, and it varies depending on what disability the individual is living with, but these examples show how so many seemingly little things, or things no one would ever think about until they themselves were disabled, are constant forms of ableism:

  • Choosing a venue for an event or meeting that is inaccessible, for any number of reasons, to someone disabled – making it impossible for them to attend
  • Not inviting a disabled person to an event because they often cannot make it, so you just assume they won’t, and don’t bother to include them at all
  • Using someones mobility device as a footrest or a toy
  • Telling someone with an invisible illness “Well, you don’t look sick!”
  • Framing someone’s disability as either tragic or inspirational in news stories, film, and other forms of media
  • A lack of representation of disabled people in films and television and in the writing and producing of their stories
  • Casting a non-disabled person in a disabled person’s role in a film or television show
  • Talking to a disabled person like a child, talking about them instead of to them, or speaking for them (or speaking to the able-bodied person they are with while they are perfectly able to speak for themselves)
  • Assuming people have to be physically disabled to actually have a disability
  • Not believing people or listening to people with invisible disabilities, or considering them to be more minor or not take them seriously
  • Holding a grudge, getting upset with, or not being flexible with friends with disabilities and making plans with them, as they may have to cancel last minute a lot, but if they can make plans, it is a big deal and try not to cancel on them
  • Asking invasive questions about a person’s disability
  • Questioning ‘how’ disabled someone ‘actually’ is
  •  Asking how someone became disabled

 

How can we make sure we’re not using ableist language and actions? How can we be more conscious of the little things we take for granted and make sure to not contribute to an ableist society norm?

Ableism can be really easy to fix in some larger situations, but the issue is making sure our advocacy helps foster more change and brings in more allies to the cause. In smaller ways, it can be hard to even realize if one is being ableist at times, because of how the world is structured. The silence surrounding taboo topics and the ignorance that discriminated groups have faced for so many years has normalized many ableist behaviors. Microaggressions are everyday sayings you may not perceive as having a negative slight against someone’s gender identity, race, sex, disability, ethnicity or religious affiliation, etc. In terms of ableism, here are a few:

  • That’s so lame.
  • That guy is crazy.
  • Are you off your meds?
  • It’s like the blind leading the blind.
  • My ideas fell on deaf ears.
  • I could never do what you do. I don’t know how you do it.
  • She’s a total psycho.
  • Have you tried getting some more exercise?
  • I get so OCD about cleaning sometimes
  • Can I pray for you?
  • I don’t even think of you as disabled.
  • I’m so sleepy, I just don’t even want to get out of bed today.

 

These phrases imply that a disability is something bad, something less than, negative, to be fixed – rather than a normal part of the human experience. It’s important to mention that depending on the saying, many people using these phrases have no idea that they are microaggressions, and have absolutely no malicious intent. But even well meant comments have a serious effect on a person – which is why it is important to bring awareness to these types of microaggressions.

 

What can we do to help avoid ableism and be more conscientious in our language and actions?

  • Listen and learn more about all different types of disabilities
  • Believe people, don’t accuse people of faking their disabilities
  • Emotionally support and make time and room for family and friends with disabilities
  • Don’t assume you know what people with disabilities need
  • Never touch a person with a disability or their mobility device without consent
  • Ask questions! If the person is open to it. Just make sure they are not invasive ones.
  • Talk about disabilities with children and young people
  • Learn about how to be a good ally!

 

But one of the most important things to do to push back against ableism? Make sure people with disabilities are at the table where decisions are being made.

 

Resources: 

Things People With Disabilities Wish You Knew

Casual Ableist Language [CC]

https://simmons.libguides.com/anti-oppression/anti-ableism#Allies

https://www.accessliving.org/newsroom/blog/ableism-101/

 

A note from the writer:

I truly understand how impossible it is to comprehend what a life with a disability is like if you do not have one. Speaking personally as someone who was completely able-bodied for 24 years of my life, even though my own cousin was disabled, my grandfather was an amputee, and I knew people with chronic diseases, there was absolutely nothing that could have ever prepared me for what my life became once I got sick and am now disabled myself. For whatever reason, people just have a really hard time thinking about life from a perspective other than their own, and I just think it really is impossible to fully comprehend as an able-bodied individual, what it is like for every single thing you do in a day to be difficult to impossible, and to imagine the physical pain and fatigue, the mental wear, and emotional toll. Thinking about it makes people uncomfortable, and finding ways to discuss ableism and disability awareness in a light that can somehow get through some of the discomfort and foster a more supportive and cooperative world.

In a future blog, I would like to discuss more how ableism affects those with disabilities. I will share my own experiences, which will vary from everyone elses, and would love to include tales from our readers and Joseph Maley Foundation supporters.

If you have examples of how ableism has affected you or your child, and are willing to share anything from a just a quote to a couple paragraphs, please feel free to reach out to me directly at lauren@josephmaley.org or aubrey@josephmaley.org

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