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What is Ableism and How Can You Be a Better Disability Advocate?

Ableism is the prejudice and discrimination against people with disabilities. More specifically, it is the practices and attitudes in our society that devalues and limits their potential.

If you have researched disability issues or spoken to any disability rights activist, you have likely heard the term “ableism.” 

If you’re unsure what this term means or how it applies to people with disabilities, we will discuss its meaning and how you can become a better ally to people with disabilities. 

What Is Ableism?

Ableism is the prejudice and discrimination against people with disabilities. More specifically, it is the practices and attitudes in our society that devalues and limits their potential. These beliefs assign a low value or worth to people, no matter their disability, whether it’s psychiatric, developmental, physical, or others. 

Disablism is a set of assumptions (whether conscious or unconscious) and acts that encourage the unequal treatment of people due to actual or presumed disabilities.

The reason ableism is so prevalent is that our culture believes typical abilities are superior. It is also rooted in the idea that disabled people need to be “fixed.” 

In essence, ableism classifies an entire group of people as inferior. It includes misconceptions, stereotyping, and generalizations regarding folks with disabilities.

Here are some false beliefs non-disabled people have about people with disabilities: 

  • People with disabilities cannot contribute to society
  • Non-disabled people are superior, and people with disabilities require their help 
  • That specific movements, senses, or thought processes are necessary for things like working, caring for a home, making friends, having a social life, and helping look after family members.  

People who don’t have a disability or are not close with anyone who has one may not comprehend how the world is more accessible for non-disabled people. Even though ableism and disablism are not intentional, they can be very deliberate in specific situations. 

Persons with disabilities face all types of barriers daily, whether systemic or attitudinal. 

What Does Systemic Ableism Look Like?

Systemic ableism is a type of prejudice and discrimination against disabled people, with beliefs firmly bound in our social structure. Most forms of ableism are categorized as systemic since this term includes all conscious and unconscious oppressive acts. For instance, using oppressive language, having ableist thoughts, taking unjust actions, or a lack of action.  

Since ableist ideas are so deeply interwoven into our social structure, they impact everyone. In other words, every person has ableist thinking or tendencies.

Here are some examples of systemic ableism:

  • Lack of compliance with disability rights laws. 
  • The segregation of students with disabilities into different schools.
  • Using restraints or alienation/seclusion to control students who have disabilities. 
  • Segregating people with disabilities in institutions.
  • Not making spaces and buildings accessible.
  • Making fun of people with disabilities. 
  • Not providing accommodations for people with disabilities. 
  • Eugenics movements.
  • Disabled people being mass murdered in Nazi Germany. 
  • and more… 

What Is Indirect Ableism?

Indirect ableism can be easily described as ignorant ableism. It is an unconscious act or behavior that is not intentional when it causes harm.

Here are some examples: 

  • Using someone’s mobility device as a rest for yourself 
  • Choosing an inaccessible venue to host an event 
  • Portraying disability as either inspiring or tragic in the media 
  • Casting non-disabled actors to play disabled characters in forms of media 
  • Making videos without closed captions or audio descriptions 
  • Using accessible bathroom stalls 
  • Wearing perfume or scents in scent-free environments 
  • Speaking to people with disabilities in a condescending way (for example, talking to them like they are a child)
  • Asking personal questions about a disabled person’s medical history  
  • Questioning someone’s disability or how disabled they are 
  • Asking a person how they became disabled 

What Are Some Ableist Micro-Aggressions?

A microaggression is a term that describes daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental slights. These comments can be intentional or unintentional; however, they are hostile and derogatory attitudes towards stigmatized marginalized groups.

Here are some examples within the context of ableism:

  • “That’s lame.”
  • Using the “r” word. 
  • “You are being crazy.”
  • “I am so OCD when it comes to cleaning.”
  • “You are so bipolar today.”
  • “He is off his meds.”
  • “It’s like the blind leading the blind.”
  • “Her ideas fell on deaf ears.”
  • “What a psycho.”
  • “I will pray for you.”
  • “I don’t think of you as disabled.”

Using these phrases implies that a disability makes a person inferior. It also stigmatizes disabilities as something negative or needing to be fixed.

Some people don’t mean to be insulting, but even well-meaning comments and actions can cause harm to the person on the receiving end. 

How You Can Be a Better Ally to People with Disabilities 

Here are some strategies for being a better ally to people with disabilities:

  • Believe people when they tell you about their disability
  • Never accuse someone of faking their disability
  • Listen to disabled people when they request an accommodation and implement this accommodation 
  • Don’t assume you know what someone with a disability requires
  • Do not touch a person with a disability or their equipment without their consent
  • Do not ask invasive questions
  • Talk about ableism with your loved ones
  • Do not speak on behalf of someone with a disability unless they ask
  • Be sure to include accessibility into your planning for events 

One of the most essential ways to be an excellent ally to people with disabilities is by giving them a voice. Make sure that they have input when decisions are being made that affect them. 

Anyone can gain a disability at any point. People who have ingrained ableist attitudes may find adjusting to having a disability more challenging. It is essential to unlearn ableist beliefs; that way, we can live in a more inclusive society for people with disabilities and an overall better place for everyone.

Read more: Reducing Stigma Toward the Transgender Community 

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Billie Olsen

MODEL: Billie Olsen

Billie Olsen (she/they) is a lifestyle writer, disability justice advocate, and cozy femme located in Kelowna, BC, Canada. Their works have appeared in Metro News, Discorder, Sophomore Magazine, the Post-Feminist Post, DINE Magazine, and NerdReader.