Ableism is a set of beliefs or practices that devalue and discriminate against people with physical, intellectual, or psychiatric disabilities and often rests on the assumption that disabled people need to be ‘fixed’ in one form or the other, according to The Center for Disability Rights, Inc. (CDR). An ableist society treats non-disabled people as the standard and allows for discrimination to occur against those who are disabled by inherently excluding them. The practice of ableism can leave those with disabilities out of certain careers, discussions, and more by othering them instead of allowing them to contribute to companies, dialogues and movements.
Examples of Ableism at Work and in Life
People who practice ableist behavior may not always recognize what they are doing, but regardless if the actions are completed with or without malice, actions can still be harmful. It’s important to recognize instances of ableism so that we can avoid perpetuating it.
1. A law office does not have documents available in braille.
By failing to provide options for people who are blind to access information, the office is operating in an unfair setup. When a client who is blind seeks the services of the office, they will have to depend on a person who can see to read the documents for them. Because the client will not be able to read the documents themselves, they have less autonomy in the situation.
2. One coworker begins pushing a coworker who uses a manual wheelchair down the hall to their office without asking them if they would like help.
Moving someone without their consent undermines their bodily autonomy. Even if someone appears to be having a difficult time, if they say they don’t need assistance, the coworker should not undermine their authority by assisting them anyway.
3. An older woman asks a young woman to move from a bus seat that’s reserved for people with disabilities.
Assuming that all disabilities are visible is ableist behavior. There are many people who have disabilities who do not use assistive devices. Asking someone to give up an accommodation or coercing them to explain their disability is unacceptable. The younger woman could have a disability that is not visible, and operating under the assumption that disabilities must be visible perpetuates a harmful stereotype.
4. A friend repeatedly calls their ex-girlfriend “psychotic” for becoming jealous when they used to text other women.
Using language that undermines another person’s mental health perpetuates ableism by repurposing terms that are used to describe psychiatric disorders in a negative way. Rather than explaining why that particular behavior was frustrating, the person speaking chose to use a shorthand that furthers negative connotations about mental disorders.
5. A panel is being hosted on a stage that is not accessible to all people.
When a person is invited to speak somewhere, they should be able to easily get to where they need to be. If a venue does not have an easy way for invited guests to be on stage, the guest is being treated as a problem instead of the venue. By expecting that all people invited to present can easily climb stairs, the organization hosting is exhibiting ableist behavior.
6. An employee speaks to their boss’s interpreter instead of to their boss.
When speaking to someone who uses an interpreter, it’s important to face and address the person with whom your communicating. Speaking directly to the boss would show the boss respect and acknowledge their presence. The interpreter is functioning as an aid, so the boss should feel like the active participant in the conversation.
7. A group of friends go out to eat, and someone in the group mocks the waiter’s stutter.
Making fun of a person’s disability perpetuates an idea that one way of moving through the world is ‘correct’ and another is not. By mocking a speech impediment, the perpetrator is furthering the idea something is wrong.
8. A school building does not have a working elevator.
Having only stairs limits the amount of people who can access certain floors. If a person who uses an assistive device such as a walker or wheelchair is unable to reach all levels of the building, then that is an example of ableism.
9. A man repeatedly refers to their manager as their ‘blind manager.’
Using language that reduces a person primarily to their disability is ableist. Instead, the man could say, ‘my manager who is blind’ when the manager’s disability is relevant. This is an example of using people-first language that features the person being spoken about first and their disability second.
History of Ableism
Before the 18th century, people with disabilities were punished because they were seen as being cursed, possessed, or the cause of their disability was interpreted as being a result of a moral failing on their part. During the Age of Enlightenment, science began replacing religion which meant that people with disabilities were no longer punished for moral failings. Some people with disabilities were sent to homes or special schools. Unfortunately, negative consequences also occurred as a result of greater scientific understanding. The Eugenics Movement began in 1850, and this led to folks with disabilities being segregated from the general population, sterilized, and even murdered, as in Nazi Germany when of 200,000 were persecuted.
In 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed. The ADA provides a three-pronged definition of disability that focuses on a person’s functional ability as opposed to their medical diagnosis to better extend its legal protections. The act acknowledges that disability discrimination is pervasive and results from prejudices that are both related and not to the disability itself.
Over the last 30 years, the Disabled People’s Movement has argued that disabled people should not be reduced to their impairments. The movement has advocated that people stop using the medical model of disability. The medical model, which assesses one on what they cannot do as opposed to what they can do, suggests that disabled people should be isolated from the world if they are unable to perform tasks at the same caliber as those who do not have disabilities, which can lead to dependence because impairment is the sole focus of the person.
How to Prevent It
Adapt a social model of disability as opposed to a medical model of disability. The medical model views the individual who has a disability was being the problem, but the social model addresses the social barriers that create problems for individuals who have disabilities. Focusing on the social barriers means evaluating the environment and assessing if buildings, services, and communications are accessible for all people.
A first step to combating ableism is to pay attention to linguistics. Always put the person first when describing someone. By using words such as ‘wrong’ to describe those with disabilities, we attribute a negative cast to them. Different does not implicitly mean something is wrong, so stepping away from a diagnostic view is the first step to begin to prevent ableist speech and thus ableist discrimination.
Unfortunately, good intentions can also contribute to ableist practices. For example, being taught to be exceptionally nice to people who have disabilities in particular by helping them without asking for their permission. Instead of defining people by their disabilities alone, such as describing someone as being ‘wheelchair bound’ describe them by their other qualities that they use to describe themselves on their own.
Things to Keep in Mind
People with disabilities are individuals, so each person has their own preferences for how they would like to be describes and treated. Some may prefer the use of certain terminology, others another term. Always defer to the individual with whom you’re speaking to determine the course of action that would make them feel most comfortable.
You can read more about the history of ableism and different models of disability on the National Conference for Community and Justice’s website. You can find additional information and resources to help combat ableism on Stop Ableism’s website.
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Kayla Heisler is an essayist and Pushcart Prize-nominated poet. She is a contributing writer for Color My Bubble. Her work appears in New York's Best Emerging Poets 2017 anthology.