What is ableism and what can anyone do about it? / CW: Ableist violence, ableist slurs.
During a recent scroll through my Twitter feed, I noticed writer and artist Ace Ratcliff had responded to a tweet that read, “i don’t know what ableism is. are you suggesting another minority group that is being marginalized now? is the implication that ‘able’ folks discriminate against ‘disabled’ folks? i hardly think that is likely in any large numbers. [sic]”
Just a couple weeks before reading this I had been asked what ableism is and, to my surprise, I couldn’t give a clear definition. I explained that, as a disabled person, ableism is something so innately understood by me because I experience or witness it in every aspect of my life and on a daily basis. I gave examples of ableist language; words like “lame,” “stupid,” and of course, “retarded.” I recounted times in my life when I had experienced overt ableism: being stalked and/or harassed by strangers for parking in accessible stalls, being told by my coworkers that I was faking symptoms, hearing that disabled people deserve to die if they can’t survive without accommodations, and so on. I said, in accordance with the Oxford Dictionary definition, that ableism ultimately comes down to discrimination against disabled people, whether intentional or not. However, I wish I had added that “the reality of ableism extends beyond literal discriminatory acts … to the way our culture views disabled people as a concept,” as Julie Zeilinger puts it in her article “6 Forms of Discrimination Against Disabled People We Need to Retire Immediately” for Mic.
Statistics Canada recently released 2017 data on Disability, noting that 22 percent of Canadians live with one or more disabilities. This figure is similar across the globe, with scholar Tom Shakespeare noting in Disability: The Basics that disabled people make up at least 15 percent of the global population.
Out of the one to two billion disabled people on Earth, I would venture to say that most would agree ableism is something incredibly commonplace in their lives—yet @NerdMovie1 “hardly thinks” it exists at all. Every disabled person I follow on Twitter or Instagram, or am friends with on Facebook, has posted about at least one incident of ableism they’ve experienced, and many post dozens in just a single week.
Despite the constant onslaught of ableism in our lives, it’s a concept understood by few people, even some disabled. Ableism is often internalized and ingrained in people and is therefore extremely difficult to not only pinpoint but also to overcome. However, the violence of ableism extends beyond exchanges between abled and disabled. When a disabled person internalizes ableism, the violence sometimes becomes lateral and begins to impact their disabled peers.
Everyday ableism is expressed in the form of not respecting bodily autonomy, ableist language, asking “how it happened,” mis- or under-representation in media, unsolicited medical advice, treating successful disabled people as “inspiration porn,” not providing access or accommodation, microaggressions (i.e. “an instance of indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination” according to Oxford Dictionary), and much more.
Historical evidence of ableism includes the eugenics movement, development of the medical model of disability, forced sterilization, special education, institutionalization, and so on. Even as recently as the 1970s, “Ugly Laws” were in legislation in which visibly disabled people were outlawed in public in many parts of the United States. As in, disabled people were fined simply for being seen in public up until the 1970s. Instead of fines, sometimes people were jailed, then sent away and subjected to labouring on government-owned work farms with minimal accommodations.
According to Ellen Blunsdon in “The Dangers of Everyday Ableism” for The Student magazine, ableist systems “[contribute] to the disparities in wealth, education, and employment levels between disabled and non-disabled people.” These disparities are very much a tool of marginalization.
However, ableism doesn’t have to play a role in the future of humanity. Through awareness, accountability, and dismantling and unlearning of ableism, it can be curbed. Allies can play a key role in the fight against ableism. It’s their job to listen to, learn from, and bolster the voices of Disabled people. It’s their job to assess their abled privilege and learn how to be active allies. It’s their job to advocate for access and inclusion when we become too fatigued to keep doing it ourselves. Too often, the fight for progress for Disabled people ends when abled allies refuse to take part.
Most importantly, we must all consider the slogan of the early disability rights movement: “Nothing about us without us.” Awareness (and, in turn, allyship) may be most important in removing attitudinal barriers, but full inclusion is the most vital way to end stifling institutional ableism.