What is Ableism?

What is ableism? Find out the definition here and what it looks like.

Ableism: as a born amputee and wheelchair-user, you would think this word would roll off my tongue with ease. But it doesn’t — in fact, I’d never even heard the term used in a sentence until last year. 

I am grateful that I came to my senses quickly and took the time to challenge my ignorance on the subject of ableism, but I am embarrassed that there was a time, however brief, where I was a part of the problem. Yes, you can be disabled and still be ableist — only a year ago, that was me. And to this day, I still find myself slipping in my thoughts from time to time.

Like other forms of discrimination, ableism runs deep in our social consciousness, so even worst-case scenarios can seem natural to people on both ends of the ability spectrum. Centuries of intolerance won’t just go away without intentional education and action, so here are some insights to get you started.

What is ableism?

Ableism is conscious or unconscious discrimination against the disabled community based solely on their disability. Most often, the discriminatory action (or lack of action), language, or thought flow from one’s own innate assumptions about the disabled lived condition. Additionally, utilitarian social beliefs uphold the idea that one’s value is derived directly from one’s ability to complete a task, which bolsters systemic structures of ableism. 

I personally have experienced three different forms of ableism: direct, indirect, and systemic.

Direct ableism is conscious and oppressive in nature. Example: Torturing someone — physically or psychologically — because he or she is disabled. 

Indirect ableism: this form might more accurately be labeled as ignorant ableism. It is an unconscious behavior that is not intended to cause harm. Example: Using the word “crazy” or “lame” to describe a friend who is doing something you disagree with — those words suggest a prejudice against someone with a mental illness or a physical disability. It might be worth investigating other words that carry implicit bias.

Systemic ableism: similar to systemic racism, this form is a result of centuries of prejudice, misunderstanding, and active discrimination against disabled people. Most forms of ableism fall under this category as this encompasses all unconscious and oppressive action, lack of action, language, and thought. Because these beliefs are so deeply rooted into our social structure, they impact everyone — meaning that, in some capacity, everyone in the world has ableist tendencies, including people with disabilities. 

Example: Only 19.3% of the disabled population were employed in 2019. Though this is not a direct attack between one person and another, the trend speaks to a system of exclusion and privilege

Other common examples of ableism

  • Not providing alternative text, an image description, or voice captions when posting on social media. 
  • Asking someone, “What happened?” or, “Are you actually disabled?” All invasive questions should be avoided, especially when meeting someone for the first time. 
  • Choosing an inaccessible venue to hold an event or meeting. 
  • Ignoring inaccessibility when you come across it (i.e., something blocking a sidewalk and choosing to step over it instead of pushing it off to the side).
  • Feeling pity or being inspired by a disabled person living their daily life. 
  • Actively ignoring provisions in the Americans with Disabilities Act.
  • Casting non-disabled talent to portray disabled characters.
  • Parking in a disabled parking space or in the protected area directly next to it.
  • Using the accessible toilet for any reason, ever.
  • Leaning on or resting your arm or leg on someone’s wheelchair.

This list is not exhaustive, but it is a strong starting point. 

The disabled community is tired of shouting into the void. I’ve only been an advocate for a year and I’m already run down. It’s time that ableism got the attention it deserves. People are hurting, struggling, and dying because of ableism. It’s time we all educate ourselves and do what we can to undermine the beliefs that have been foundational to our social structure for centuries. It’s time we start talking about ableism for what it is: discrimination. 

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