When you think about discrimination, what comes to mind? Take a moment to ponder it. In your mind’s eye, who do you picture being discriminated against? How does this discrimination manifest? Where does it happen? And, lastly, why does it happen?
I ask these questions because we all have preconceived notions about discrimination. We may think about racism. Or sexism. Or homophobia. Or religious persecution. Our shared history has taught us to recognize some, more blatant, forms of these discriminations— but, sadly, we have a long way to go to identify and rectify the consequences that have resulted from them.
But there is one “-ism” that very few people know about. In fact, if they’ve heard the word, they likely don’t even know what it means. Yet, it’s an “-ism” they’ve most likely witnessed, and, I daresay, even directly enabled at some point in their lives.
I’m talking about ableism. The textbook definition, itself, is even vague— as if the person writing for Oxford Dictionary wasn’t quite sure what it is, either:
discrimination in favor of able-bodied people.
No offense to the Oxford folks, but this definition isn’t helpful. Yet, oddly, the sparseness— the vagueness of it— and the fact that the definition doesn’t even mention the target of the discrimination… well, that says a LOT about how veiled and insidious ableism can be.
So, let’s expand this definition a little. Ableism is discrimination against people with disabilities based on the deep-seeded societal belief that they are inferior to the nondisabled. It is rooted in the long-held assumption that disabled people require ‘fixing,” and a notion that they are incapable of being full, independent members of society. Like other “-isms,” ableism classifies an entire group of people as ‘less than,’ and perpetuates harmful stereotypes and misconceptions of people with disabilities.
Ableism can occur in overt, obvious ways— through things like abuse, direct exclusion and denial of access. But, it’s the more subtle forms of ableism that can often be the most harmful to those with disabilities.
I am disabled. I’ve written about some of my life experiences here in this blog. Ableism is something I’ve quietly experienced my entire life— but during my younger years, I didn’t have the language or the ability to put it into words. Or, to really examine what I knew in my bones to be true:
Society saw me differently than others. I was measured to a different standard. Less was expected of me, yet I had to achieve FAR more to be taken seriously. To be heard. To be valued. I had to minimize my disability and shrink it down into the teeniest box imaginable. Even if I knew I couldn’t manage it. Even if I knew it wasn’t sustainable for me in the long run.
You see, ableism demands these things of the disabled. Because being less disabled means that society values you more. You will have more access to education, employment, and economic opportunity. You will be listened to— and you will have more access to the healthcare and community services you may need.
Society perpetuates these values day after day. Ableism is baked right into the foundation of it— like walnuts in a loaf of banana bread. It’s the reason why the disabled are always one of the first groups to suffer during times of upheaval, like the COVID-19 pandemic. Ableism teaches us that the disabled are more expendable than the able-bodied. We see those values playing out right now in real-time.
There are undercurrents of ableism in the protests to masking, vaccine requirements and other public health measures. These protocols serve to protect the disabled and vulnerable, but as many of these protesters see themselves as “healthy,” they don’t see why they must do these things. They subconsciously believe their rights and their value exceeds that of others. Why do they think this? It’s not simply a matter of “selfishness” or a lack of “morality” (that’s too simplistic, and also, untrue). You see, it’s ableism that justifies this position in their minds. Ableism is what subtly reinforces the idea that they are superior to the ones they are being asked to protect.
This dark side of ableism can be very dangerous for the disabled. For that reason, it’s the one that many people don’t like to talk about. It makes folks uncomfortable. After all, society is invested in the narrative that it “takes care” of the vulnerable among us. We want to think this is true. And, while we do great things to care for others (we really do!), we still have a long way to go to achieve equity for the disabled. To achieve full personhood for the disabled.
No discussion of ableism, however, can be complete without acknowledging the added barriers and discriminations that disabled people of color experience. All the challenges of getting access, accommodation and resources are exponentially compounded for the disabled in communities of color. This is why disabled people of color are in the highest mortality group for COVID-19. Ableism and racism can combine in ways that can be deadly. We must not be afraid to acknowledge this and address it. No work to combat ableism can be fruitful without efforts to tackle these added racial disparities.
The disability community needs allies in these efforts. Our voices, alone, won’t make things change. Do you want to do your part? If so, I recommend that you learn more about ableism— and all the ways it can show up in our daily lives. My explanation above is rudimentary, so there is much more to learn. Here are a few links to check out:
This brief list is just an entry point. After all, the disability community’s experience with ableism is as diverse as the community itself. Yet, there are commonalities that bind us together. So, your first step is learning to recognize ableism when you see it— because, trust me, you will see it.
And once you do see it, you will have no excuse not to do anything about it. The power to make change will then rest with you.
Let’s get started, shall we?