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What You Need to Know About Ableism

Disability Discrimination 101 and Ways to be Anti-Ableist

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[Photo Description: A large group of Diversability community members posing for a photo at a community event]
[Photo Description: A large group of Diversability community members posing for a photo at a community event]

By Rebecca Finkelstein, Digital Advocacy at Diversability

If people with disabilities are the world’s largest minority, consisting of about 15% of the world’s population (over one billion people), why are we not talking about it more?

Could it be due to ableism?

As a student with a disability, I found it both perplexing and offensive that I never learned about ableism in school. From Kindergarten through my Master’s degree, I learned all about different forms of discrimination, but this never included ableism.

This lack of knowledge left me feeling unheard, unrepresented and left me wanting to learn more.

I’m excited to share some things I’ve learned about ableism, including first-person accounts, and what we can do to help dismantle it.

This information is by no means comprehensive, but I hope it provides you with the groundwork and knowledge for continued learning, growth and reflection.

TL Lewis and Dustin Gibson, define ableism as : “A system that places value on people’s bodies and minds based on societally constructed ideas of normalcy, intelligence, excellence and productivity. These constructed ideas are deeply rooted in anti-Blackness, eugenics, colonialism and capitalism. This form of systemic oppression leads to people and society determining who is valuable and worthy based on a person’s appearance and/or their ability to satisfactorily [re]produce, excel and ‘behave’.”

Simply put, ableism is both harmful and pervasive, and is normalized in our culture. This is due to a variety of reasons, such as limiting beliefs about what disability does or does not mean, how people learn (or don’t learn) about disability, as well as the overall devaluing and limiting of people with disabilities.

Ableism comes in many forms and is experienced in many ways. Here is a quick review of some of the different types of ableism you may have experienced or be consciously and unconsciously perpetuating.

Systemic or Institutional Ableism

Systemic or institutional ableism includes the physical barriers, policies, laws, regulations and practices that exclude people with disabilities from full participation and equal opportunity.

This can be seen through lack of accessibility or accommodations in schools and in the workplace, when buildings aren’t accessible (i.e. no ramps or elevators, no interpreters available), or through ableism in healthcare, such as limited or no insurance coverage for people with ‘pre-existing conditions,’ or triage policies that allow doctors to deny care based on factors including a patient’s medical history and disabilities.

Ableism has strong historical roots and is well-ingrained into our systems. I urge you to learn more about the history of ableism and to think about how it continues to impact our policies and actions today!

Internalized Ableism 

Internalized ableism is a practice where disabled people internalize the discriminatory ideas and prejudices from our ableist culture and society. This may result in feelings of being lesser than or inferior, or feeling like you aren’t entitled to certain things due to your disability.

For example, thinking that you should lower your relationship standards, because ‘who would want to be with someone who has a disability?’ Internalized ableism could also be not asking for accommodations you are entitled to, as to not bother someone or feel like a burden.

These are tough thoughts and feelings to have, and they can require a lot of self-challenging and support to address and unlearn.

Ableist Microaggressions

Finally, we have ableist microaggressions which is indirect, subtle, possibly unintentional discrimination against individuals based on their disability. These take the form of statements, actions, incidents, or exclusions.

Ableist microagressions happen quite often, as do microaggressions with many other forms of discrimination. In fact, you may be the culprit of engaging in microaggressions yourself!

Have you ever asked someone with a disability if they have tried X? Or maybe even if you could pray for them? Perhaps you’ve said something like ‘wow I couldn’t do that’, or ‘you don’t look and act disabled,’ and even congratulated someone with a disability for something not worth the congratulations (i.e. getting dressed, going out for dinner etc).

Ableist microaggressions happen all the time and can be extremely damaging. It is important to think before you speak, but more importantly to think about why what you are saying may in fact be a product of ableism.

How to Tackle Ableism

A crucial component of dismantling any form of discrimination is showcasing and highlighting individuals with lived experience. The same applies to ableism, where there must be an emphasis on empowering and sharing the voices, experiences and ideas of people with any and all disabilities.

I had the opportunity to ask our Diversability community to share some of the ways they have experienced ableism and what YOU (an ally or a person with a disability) can do about it:

Ableist action: Asking personal questions about someone’s disability

When I was first diagnosed with amblyopia at a young age and began wearing eye patches, I remember vividly coming into my elementary school with peers asking invasive, personal questions about my condition, making me uncomfortable with myself.

Be empathetic, sincere, and open

Being empathetic, sincere, and open to where the other person is coming from can help them feel heard.

Journal your thoughts

As kids made assumptions and I was left alone to reflect, it unknowingly ignited my passion for journaling my thoughts.

-Alyssa Yam, @ayn_260

Ableist action: Presuming that someone with a disability is incapable

While I am waiting in line to order food, most servers/waiters won’t even ask me if they can help, because seeing my disability, they just assume I am either waiting for someone, or incapable of placing the order, and carrying the food. They automatically go to the able-bodied people behind me.

Acknowledge people with disabilities and presume competence

Acknowledge someone with a disability. Even if it is just asking them: “are you next in line?”

Joey Noble, @ay_asher @thehowfdn @modestisland_music

Ableist action: Avoiding the subject of health and disability altogether

Ableism has impacted all areas of my life, but most importantly education and relationships. I’ve faced many barriers when it comes to accommodation and accessibility in traditional schooling. My abilities were underestimated and I struggled with my grades because I lacked that support. I lost a lot of friends because they wanted to avoid the subject of my health or turned me away when I wasn’t at school every day.

Point out barriers to others

I address ableism by pointing out the barriers built into society – it’s hard for individuals to “overcome” them. I also try to demonstrate how I can accomplish things in my own way, and I’m not less worthy if I’m unable to keep up with everyone else.

Share articles and first person perspectives about disability and ableism

It is helpful to share articles and first person perspectives on social media, where they (friends and family) can see.

-Nicole Mendez-Villarrubia, @nicoledearest_

Have you experienced or witnessed ableism? What action will you take to be more anti-ableist in your life?

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