About 15% of the global population lives with some kind of disability, but our world was not built with disability in mind – and people with disabilities are forced to live in a society that does not consider their needs very often. In fact, not only does society fail to consider people’s needs but it simultaneously expects that people are ‘able’ and wouldn’t even need consideration in the first place. This view is built into the very structures, processes and systems of society itself, and so it can be tough not to be complicit in this way of thinking. Most often, the way society interacts with people who have disabilities is not intended to be harmful or negative, but the bigger problem is that people aren’t aware enough to know that they are in fact being both hurtful and discriminatory. Which leads us to the concept of ableism – favouritism based on disability.
Ableism is a term used to describe the constant misconceptions, generalisations and social prejudice people with disabilities face everyday as a result of the belief that typical abilities are superior (Kaundinya & Schroth, 2022). This belief is based on the idea that able-bodied people are more valuable than people with disabilities, and likewise that disabled bodies or minds are different or unwanted. Ableist language equates disability with something negative, which in turn creates a misconstrued representation of what being a person with a disability is actually like. Unfortunately, like many other types of discrimination, ableism exists in subtle forms which occur everyday in the life of people with disabilities. This can mean that ableism goes unnoticed, as if it isn’t really a problem at all. Some people are even unaware that they’re acting in ableist ways, often because these behaviours are learnt from society itself, and from repetition of terms or slang that we hear everyday. Unfortunately, this often comes from misunderstanding and misinformation around what people with disabilities can and cannot do, and how they are integrated into society.
Regardless of where ableism is learnt or how it is perpetrated, it is society’s responsibility to put their good intentions aside, and properly educate themselves about ableist attitudes and behaviours so they can be better. To help you out with this, we’ve put together a short list of attitudes and behaviours that are ableist – it might be helpful for you to reflect on whether you engage in any of these, or if you can call them out if you observe other people doing the same.
– Characterising people with disabilities as violent or lazy
– Perceiving people with disabilities as incapable of making independent decisions
– Viewing people with disabilities as ‘inspirational’ for achieving ordinary tasks
– Making assumptions about a person’s disability or level of capacity
– Thinking that people with disabilities are abnormal or weird
– Telling someone that has a disability that they don’t ‘look’ like they have a disability (as if this is a compliment to them)
– Using derogatory terms to describe a person with a disability (‘retarded’, ‘idiot’ or ‘moron’)
– Planning events that are inaccessible to people with disabilities
– Speaking to someone else rather than the person with a disability directly
– Using the handicapped restroom for convenience or to avoid waiting
While these lists are certainly not extensive, they may start to paint a picture about what ableism can look like in everyday society. You may not have even realised that some of these things go on around you, but people with disabilities suffer all the time. This demonstrates that it’s even more important for everyone to become more aware of ableism and the negative consequences it can have.
Kaundinya, T., & Schroth, S. (2022). Dismantle Ableism, Accept Disability: Making the Case for Anti-Ableism in Medical Education. Journal of Medical Education and Curricular Development, 9, 23821205221076660.