In One Sentence: Ableism, or discrimination in favor of able-bodied people, is grounded in the assumption that everyone experiences the world in the same way and can present itself on individual and institutional levels.
Ableism, simply put, is discrimination in favor of able-bodied people. That’s an important distinction to make — ableism isn’t necessarily discrimination directly against disabled people. It can be much more subtle and nuanced than that. Nor does ableism always take the form of a specific action; beliefs, standards and institutional practices can be ableist, too.
We at SDS think that ableism starts with the (problematic) assumption that everyone sees, walks, hears, talks, thinks and acts in the same way. It’s from this assumption that our environments — both physical spaces and societal schemas — are built, leaving no room for traits that fall outside those assumed norms. Therefore, we see that individuals who do hold non-normative traits are at an inherent disadvantage.
Ableism can be individual or structural, overt or subtle. It’s probably most often thought of in terms of physical environments — for instance, the failure of a business to provide a ramp to its entry constitutes ableism because it denies wheelchair users the same degree of access as their able-bodied peers. But we believe it’s important to remember that access to the environment transcends ramp use. Obstacles that prevent individuals from utilizing any sort of accommodation, from closed captions to service animals, can be considered ableist.
Language can be ableist, too. For instance, it’s generally known that the word “retarded” isn’t acceptable to use in any context, because it’s dehumanizing toward those with intellectual disabilities. But there are other words, ones that are part of our daily vocabularies, that also have ableist connotations (many of which can be offensive toward those with mental illness). Some examples include:
- OCD (“You’re so OCD!”)
Many commonly-made assumptions surrounding disability have ableist roots — for example, questioning a person’s autonomy or ability to do a certain everyday task. Rushing to open the door for someone with a mobility impairment, while most likely done out of kindness, carries with it the implication that the person is unable to do so themselves. That duality is part of what makes ableism so insidious; it can sometimes run up against a human instinct to help. Generally, it’s best to wait until the disabled person asks for help before intervening.
Another form of ableism — feeling entitled to know how a person became disabled — is borne out of curiosity. Asking someone to explain how or why they became disabled perpetuates a cycle in which people with disabilities often feel forced to explain their existence. It can also violate the disabled individual’s right to privacy, and imply that the details of someone’s diagnosis or symptoms are the most important or salient aspect of their identity.
At the same time, though, assuming that a person’s disability is a tragic circumstance sends a harmful message. For many people who subscribe to the social model of disability, disability is a integral dimension of their identity. That’s why it can be problematic to express sorrow or pity when learning of someone’s disability.
At SDS, we believe that a large part of combating ableism involves pushing back against some of the most prevalent societal stereotypes surrounding disability, many of which involve patronizing disabled people or promoting other ableist behaviors.
Parts of this page are based on “6 Forms of Ableism We Should Retire Immediately” by Julie Zeilinger on Mic.
Brown, L. X. Z. Ableism/Language. Retrieved from https://www.autistichoya.com/p/ableist-words-and-terms-to-avoid.html.
Cohen-Rottenberg, R. (2014, August 10). Doing Social Justice: 10 Reasons to Give Up Ableist Language. Retrieved from https://www.huffingtonpost.com/rachel-cohenrottenberg/doing-social-justice-thou_b_5476271.html
Smith, L., Foley, P. F., & Chaney, M. P. (2008). Addressing classism, ableism, and heterosexism in counselor education. Journal of Counseling and Development: JCD, 86(3), 303.
Zeilinger, J. (2018, August 17). 6 Forms of Discrimination Against Disabled People We Need to Retire Immediately. Retrieved from https://mic.com/articles/121653/6-forms-of-ableism-we-need-to-retire-immediately#.0gmFtiLe