Like most bloggers I have a file full of ideas for blog posts. My file has about 50 partially written posts – yes my brain is really that active. While hashing through some ideas, trying to decide what to write about next, I realised many of them have a common theme, and that subject is ‘ableism’. So, this piece seemed a logical place to start. What is ableism? How does it manifest itself? How does it impact disabled people’s lives, and why should we care about it?
What is Ableism?
First up, a brief explanation of what ableism actually is.
In a nutshell, ableism is discrimination and prejudice against disabled people based on the belief that typical abilities are superior. At its heart, ableism is rooted in the assumption that disabled people require ‘fixing’ and defines people by their disability. It is a system that values people based on their bodies and minds and what society deems to be ‘normal’, and devalues and limits the potential of disabled people.
Ableism classifies entire groups of people as ‘less than,’ and can take the form of ideas and assumptions, stereotypes, language, attitudes and practices, physical barriers in the environment, or larger scale oppression.
Examples of ableism
When we start to look at examples of ableism we can see what a huge negative impact it has on disabled people’s lives – so many of our daily struggles are magnified by ableism, and our perceptions of self-worth as disabled people are often influenced by it too.
Ableism can manifest in physical actions, verbal interactions or less obvious prejudice.
Here are a few examples:
- Lack of compliance with disability rights laws
- Failing to incorporate accessibility into building design plans
- Companies with inaccessible websites
- The assumption that people with disabilities want or need to be ‘fixed’
- Using disability as a punchline, or mocking people with disabilities
- Refusing to provide reasonable accommodations
- The eugenics movement
- Choosing an inaccessible venue for a meeting or event, therefore excluding some participants
- Ridiculing someone else’s mobility device
- Framing disability as either tragic or inspirational (inspirational porn) in news stories, movies, and other popular forms of media
- Casting a non-disabled actor to play a disabled character in a play, movie, TV show, or commercial
- Making a movie that doesn’t have audio description or closed captioning
- Talking to a person with a disability like they are a child (infantilization), talking about them instead of directly to them, or speaking for them
- Automatically assuming incompetence based on another person’s appearance or diagnosis
- Asking invasive questions about the medical history or personal life of someone with a disability
- Questioning if someone is ‘actually’ disabled, or ‘how much’ they are disabled
- Asking, “How did you become disabled?” or “What happened to you?”
- Ventilators being withheld from disabled and severely ill COVID-19 patients because their lives are not deemed worth saving.
- Blaming disabled people for their disability or insinuating they somehow deserve their disability due to some past sins
- Treating disabled people like they are inferior, a burden, or less worthy
- Calling disabled people’s partners ‘saints’ for being with someone who is disabled
- Using ableist language, for example: ‘Crazy’, ‘Lame’, ‘Insane’, ‘retarded’, ‘Dumb’
- The straw ban, and other environmental initiatives which do not account for disabled people’s needs, and therefore put their lives in danger
Do any of these feel familiar to you? Have you experienced them yourself?
Ableism is ingrained in society, meaning we are raised surrounded by these beliefs, misconceptions and prejudices, so it’s no wonder we often internalise this ableism.
When my health severely deteriorated, and I became disabled a few years ago, I refused to call myself disabled or even acknowledge to myself that I was. To me ‘disabled’ was a bad word – being disabled was something negative, and a weakness.
I refused to use mobility aids even though I was experiencing frequent falls, and my pain, fatigue and weakness meant I would have greatly benefited from their use, because I felt embarrassed and ashamed. I actively kept away from support groups determined to “not be disabled” because it was so ingrained in me that being disabled was shameful.
I delayed asking for help from friends and family because I felt like a burden. I spent a long time refusing to accept I needed help with my care, because again I saw this as something negative and a sign of weakness, and my health severely deteriorated as a consequence. I also deal with the constant feeling that I need to apologise for needing any help or merely existing.
Internalised ableism can also lead to a lot of internal pressure and expectation to meet or even exceed the able-bodied standard. This can come at great expense of physical health through pushing to or beyond capacity.
“I’m not normal, I’m a challenge and a burden, I don’t fit in and I have to fundamentally change myself to fit in”, are all messages that used to run through the back of my mind all the time, and still do occasionally.
Ignorance feeds ableism
I don’t know about you but I’ve had enough of living in a society that devalues my worth, and sees me as an inconvenience and a burden – subhuman even. This became very apparent during the COVID-19 lockdown when accessibility suddenly became a priority when the masses needed it, but has always been seen as an inconvenience when we demanded it.
I believe a lot of the ableism we face is due to ignorance. Many people just do not come in close contact with disabled people, or people who feel confident being openly disabled, so they just don’t know how to act.
People with disabilities are also severely underrepresented, or misrepresented in the media. This has a huge damaging effect and adds to the ignorance and abuse we receive.
I also see healthy, non-disabled people shuddering at the thought of using the word “disabled,” as if it were a great insult. They will avoid the term at all costs, and often create laughable alternatives like “differently abled” or “inclusion seekers” to describe us. This again is down to ignorance. ‘Disabled’ is not a bad word. Instead of fighting against the valuable and useful word “disabled,” we need everyone to fight against the underlying ableism that causes non-disabled people to recoil in horror from the word, “disabled.”.
If you want a chuckle please watch this TikTok video by Imani Barbarin:
And lastly, society has been brainwashed to believe that disabled equals wheelchair, but disability comes in all shapes and sizes. Remember that not all disabilities are visible so try not to make assumptions when you see people using disabled parking spaces or disabled toilets.
This was just an introduction to ableism. I plan to go into more detail in future posts covering topics like: the lack of disabled characters in TV and film, internalised ableism, ambulatory wheelchair users and the abuse we receive, invisible disabilities and misconceptions, ableist language, infantilization of disabled people – and I’m sure I will think of many more along the way.
What examples of ableism do you face regularly? How does ableism negatively impact on your life?
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