Ableism 101: what you should know

16 mins read

So what is ableism? How do we identify it? What examples are there?

Ah, the ‘a’ word. Something we’ve read or come across many times. Something that perhaps, others do not often feel like they need to think about.

I’m going to leave the stories out of this one. My goal here is to provide a resource for ableism. After that, it is up to the individual to obtain knowledge on the subject. Many disabled people are very exhausted speaking out about this particular topic.

Breaking the silence that ableism so often hides in will reveal just how prominent, problematic, yet engrained it remains within our society. The individual can only do so much, and ableism happens more because of ignorance rather than malicious intent.

But it doesn’t end there, because it is also up to society as a whole to challenge ableism, since, just like other prejudices (racism, misogyny, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, biphobia) it is a form of systematic oppression.

Both the individual and the system as a whole are what makes ableism just as problematic. The main difference is that ableism gets less media attention and therefore less discussion. This allows it to go unchallenged, and often presents a shock to others when it is.

In this article, I offer ways to challenge ableism, both on an individual and systemic level.

Definition and Types

Ableism is often simply defined as prejudice within which able-bodied people are viewed as superior to disabled people. But this definition is too basic, because the term able-bodied refers to the physical or mental capacity to perform work.

So we need to extend the definition to include other variables.

A better definition would be ‘a system of prejudice and power which allows for the systemic and individual discrimination against disabled people’

This definition works better, because discrimination includes actions held at every level of society, while power helps to reiterate that those who are able-bodied have privilege. Thereby satisfying both the idea of superiority as an able-bodied person, and the fact that ableism is often carried out through ignorance.

There are many different categories of ableism as well. So let’s talk about them.

Physical ableism – this is discrimination or hatred based on physical appearance. This form of ableism affects people such as those with Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, and other genetic conditions such as dwarfism.

Mental ableism – often called mentalism or sanism, this is discrimination based on mental health and cognitive differences. This form affects anyone with a mental health condition such as depression, anxiety or schizophrenia. It can also affect those with a cognitive disability such as autism, dyslexia or ADHD.

Medical ableism – This form is both interpersonal and systemic. Examples include healthcare providers being ableist, or decisions made by medical institutions that prohibit the exercise of rights from disabled patients.

Structural ableism – this type of ableism is a failure to provide accessibility tools such as ramps, wheelchairs, laptops, software and sensory equipment.

Cultural ableism – this form looks at how social, behavioural, cultural and attitudinal patterns result in discrimination, dismissal of invisible conditions, denial of additional needs and making disabled rights and accessibility unattainable.

Internalised ableism – This is discrimination from a disabled person against oneself or other disabled people. It often results from mistreatment including other disabled people. It can include viewing disability as something to be ashamed or hide, or refusing support.

Hostile ableism – This is a more visible form of ableism in which an individual is openly hostile or violent towards a disabled person.

Benevolent ableism – This form often looks as if an individual treats a disabled person well, but considers them as children (infantilises them) rather than treating them like other adults. Examples include microaggression, failure to consider disabled people in decision making, talking about a disabled person to someone as if they are not there when they are, not listening to their voices, invading boundaries, forcing them to participate.

Ambivalent ableism – This form is characterised as somewhere in between hostile and benevolent ableism.

Ableist language

Our vocabularies are full of ableist sayings, phrases and words which have been in use for years. Due to the human psychology of having unconscious biases, we often do not realise when we are saying ableist things, which is why ableism mostly comes from a place of ignorance.

However when it comes to our language, there are three ways in which the phrases we pick and choose can actually be doing more harm than good.

  1. Resilience and toughness
  2. Intelligence and sanity
  3. Work ethic

When it comes to resilience and being tough, it is a very common stereotype that disabled people are viewed as weak and fragile. It is too common to hear from others that we must be fundamentally unwell, and the words we use often reflect this. For example, workplaces reluctant to hire us assume that we can’t handle the pressure, and disability services are still referred to as ‘care’.

The opposite assumption also becomes harmful. The notion that disabled people are naturally resilient and tough puts disabled people in a position where social integration becomes difficult, while also imposing high expectations that are extremely hard to fulfill. Additionally, it normalises the idea of hardship being an inevitable part of life – our endurance gets praised while the conditions that create such endurance get ignored.

That is why inspiration porn, and other forms of positivity can be harmful. The key is to just treat us like you would anyone else. Sure, it’s okay to tell us we’re strong, but when the circumstances that have caused me to be seen as strong are not considered, you’re doing far more harm than good.

People’s capacities are always evaluated in schools, universities, and workplaces. Instead of assuming we are tough, resilient, weak, or fragile, it is good to question the meaning and value of these words themselves. When are the values of strength and resilience actually positive? How are they misused?

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The most significantly harmful source of ableist language comes from the way we measure intelligence and sanity. It has been very common to ridicule, mock, or discriminate against intellectually disabled people and those with mental health conditions. Yet this same notion is unheard of when it comes to physically disabled people because those same people would think of almost nothing to discriminate or invalidate them.

In the past, humans would be split into pseudo-scientific categories like ‘moron’ and ‘idiot’. But today, even physically disabled people argue for rights by claiming nothing is wrong with their minds. And those with mental health conditions and cognitive conditions like autism are often feared or despised more by non-disabled people today than before.

The unconscious biases we hold on the values of intelligence and sanity have been core values of our worldview since the Enlightenment – that they are seen as both the most rational ways to judge a person’s worth and quality. Calling someone ‘stupid’ is more acceptable than making fun of their appearance, for instance.

The truth is that intelligence and sanity are far more subjective than is often thought. And reexamining our notions of both in a more humane and critical manner does not mean we have to ignore disabled people’s realities or individual needs.

So, I challenge you to think twice before calling someone ‘stupid’ or another insult that is based on this unconscious idea of intelligence and sanity.

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Humans are constantly evaluating people’s worth based on ‘hard work’ and ‘productivity’. As a result of this, younger generations have been viewed as entitled or lazy. This is why disabled people still think that having a job is the only way to get full integration, acceptance, and respect.

Too often, disabled people have been demonised for not working. But the truth is that the majority of us want to work because money helps us get access and security. It also hurts when being denied the opportunity to work due to being disabled as well as receiving less pay if we are in work.

However, on the other hand it is important to remember that there are rational reasons for disabled people not to work. That is because some of us view work with a much wider scope, including volunteering, freelance, temporary and part-time work. When others evaluate our worth based solely on our ability to work, they are often ignoring the fact that simply living and coping with our disabilities is work in itself.

That is why some of us see our daily living, maintaining our health, independence, and stability as work. We need to be open to questioning the importance we place on work, and how we measure value and ‘success’ for disabled people. Crucially, we must continue to fight for equal rights in employment, as well as for social welfare to those who need it.

It’s time to reconsider whether or not someone disabled is really ‘lazy’ or ‘entitled’

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Examples of ableism carried out by individuals

The individual has a part to play when it comes to challenging ableism. That is because some ableist words and actions are often easier to unlearn and remove than systemic practices are. Some examples of this are:

  • Calling someone ‘autistic’ if you’re part of the gaming community.
  • Referring to someone as ‘psycho’ or calling them ‘mental’.
  • Referring to something as being ‘OCD’.
  • Asking someone: ‘are you deaf/blind?’ often if someone has not seen or heard something or someone else.
  • Asking someone: ‘can you read/count?’ often as an insult in debates and discussions.
  • Insulting intelligence and sanity by using phrases such as ‘idiot’ ‘stupid’ ‘insane’ ‘moron’ or ‘retarded’.
  • Calling someone ‘lazy’ or ‘entitled’.
  • Saying to a disabled person that they do not look disabled.
  • A doctor refusing to help you if you have a chronic illness/chronic pain condition such as EDS.
  • Talking over a disabled person.
  • Trying to explain what ableism is and isn’t to a disabled person in order to justify using harmful words and phrases.
  • Parking in a disabled person’s parking space, or leaving a passive aggressive note on a disabled person’s car.

Examples of systemic ableism carried out by society

However, the onus is also on society to challenge and eliminate ableism. This is because big businesses, companies and corporations have a lot of power with how they market, produce and sell services and products. The media also has a huge influence on us as individuals.

Some examples of this include the following:

  • Excluding disabled people from decision making, meetings and appointments.
  • Donating to harmful organisations and charities.
  • Refusing to cast a disabled person for a disabled character in a film, TV show, or other performance.
  • Refusing to provide accessibility tools at university.
  • Cutting or taking away benefits and subsidies from disabled people.
  • Refusing to provide support in the workplace or educational institution.
  • Producing articles that harm disabled people and perpetuate harmful stereotypes.
  • Violence against disabled people.
  • Refusing to employ disabled people or pay them equally as other people.
  • Tropes and attitudes within films and TV shows.
  • Failure to make adjustments at school, college or university for assessments.
  • Failure to fund and invest in support services, training and other resources.
  • National, regional and local policies which discriminate or harm disabled people.
  • Hijacking projects and services meant for disabled people, such as sunflower lanyards.

Now, it’s up to you

Here, I have provided an article on ableism 101. My hope is that by writing about ableism and other aspects of life as a disabled person, our voices are heard and acknowledged.

The onus is now on the reader to take something away from this, and to seek other knowledge through different resources. Reading books or articles written by disabled people is a good idea.

I will leave some resources below.





Feature image credit: Shutterstock

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PhD - Environmental Science. Aspiring research scientist. Like to blog things science, and how it affects us.

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