Ableism & Why We Need to Undo It

Ableism & Why We Need to Undo It

As any person with a disability can tell you, our culture is steeped in negative beliefs and discrimination against children and adults with disabilities. A common theme is that people with disabilities are less than in some way, that something is inherently wrong with them, and that they need fixing.

These and other common ways of thinking are at the very core of ableism: discrimination and prejudice against people with disabilities.

Undoing ableism means realizing that people with disabilities are capable, valuable, and autonomous (Pulrang, 2020). Nobody is broken. Nobody needs fixing.

It’s the world that needs to be more adaptable and accessible to all the different ways our bodies and minds work.

What are common misperceptions?

Stereotyping disabilities. Believing that all people with Down syndrome are angels, that people who have communication disabilities also have an intellectual disability, that people with mental illness labels are unsafe.

Protecting. Believing that children and adults with disabilities need to be protected, cared for, and away from the general community.

Being inspired or pitying. Believing that people with disabilities are inspirational just for living their lives. Conversely, thinking that children and adults with disabilities are miserable and pitiable. Or that people with disabilities are undeserving.

What does ableism look like in practice?

Helping when it is not requested. Assuming that they need help when they don’t is a pet peeve for many people with disabilities. Ask first.

General discomfort with people with disabilities, including feeling disgust and pity.

Assuming incompetence.

Discrimination against people with disabilities in employment, education, and housing.

Speaking for people with disabilities.

Speaking to adults with disabilities as if they are children.

Speaking to children with disabilities as if they were younger than they are.

(Pulrang, 2020)

What can we do to stop ableism?

Bloggers on ableism have different takes on the subject, but a common thread is to stop treating people with disabilities as different than.

“De-rooting ableism is often as simple as just treating disabled people like you would anyone else,” writes Leah Smith. “Novel idea, I know.”

Recognize that disability is a normal, inevitable part of the human experience, recommends Ashley Eisenmenger.

Include people with disabilities at the table and listen to their voices. What table? Every table. Work tables. Community tables. Political tables. Education tables. Any table where decisions are being made.

And make sure that the path to those tables is accessible. If you are having any event, make sure that people with disabilities can get to it; if you are designing materials, make sure people with disabilities can access them; if you are planning outreach, make sure it is reaching people with disabilities.

Change the laws and regulations that restrict, isolate, and harm children and adults with disabilities, that make it difficult for people with disabilities to marry, to live in the community in their own homes with the people they want to live with, to make their own choices, says freelance writer Andrew Pulrang.

(Adapted in part from Eisenmenger, 2019; Pulrang, 2020; Ravishankar, 2020; and Smith, n.d.)