What is ableism and why does it matter?

What is ableism?

“In its most boiled-down, squished together, simplified form, ableism is the process of favoring, fetishizing, and building the world around a mostly imagined, idealized body while discriminating against those bodies perceived to move, see, hear, process, operate, look, or need differently from that vision.

Rebekah Taussig, Sitting Pretty

I really like Rebekah’s way of describing ableism, mostly for it’s broad sweeping approach. Ableism is basically treating people as less than because of their disability.

Ableism: The placing of preferential value on people who meet the society’s idea of normal, often with the added determination that people who aren’t ‘normal’ are worthless.

The idea that disabled people are inferior is found repeatedly in our society. There is an inherent assumption that disabled bodies are damaged, not perfect, not normal, and because of that, it is assumed that the experience of being disabled must, inevitably be, a miserable one.

“The dominant culture promotes ableism, the idea that people with disabilities are inferior to the nondisabled. Assumptions like: disability is a tragedy; disabled people are unteachable; it’s better to be dead than disabled.”

Haben Girma

To understand ableism better, it can be helpful to look at some examples. One of the more obvious examples of ableism is an inaccessible building or website. The building or website has been built with the idea of a ‘perfect’ user in mind and has assumed that people who don’t fit within that idea don’t need or want access.  Or, as often is the case, people who don’t fit within that idea haven’t even been considered.

As well as tangible examples of ableism – such as the lack of a ramp – there is attitudinal ableism which can be a bit harder to pin down or get your head around. It is ableist when a non disabled person assumes that a disabled person must want to be fixed or cured. This, by extension, makes the assumption that living as a disabled person must be dreadful.

Ableism can take many forms such as not providing information in accessible formats, using disability as an insult or the punchline to a joke, or assuming that disabled people can’t be good parents just because they are disabled.

Why does ableism matters?

Ableism matters because it excludes disabled people from society. It is discrimination and it assumes that disabled people have less worth and less to offer. Ableism allows for poor treatment and discrimination of disabled people, and when it is assumed that the non disabled body is the standard body, disabled people find themselves barred from many aspects of society. Whether it’s a café that doesn’t have an accessible toilet, or an interviewer who can’t imagine a disabled person working.

Ableism also matters because:

“[it] set the stage for queer and trans people to be institutionalized as mentally disabled;
for communities of color to be understood as less capable, smart and intelligent, therefore “naturally” fit for slave labor;
for women’s bodies to be used to produce children, when, where and how men needed them;
for people with disabilities to be seen as “disposable” in a capitalist and exploitative culture because we are not seen as “productive;”
for immigrants to be thought of as a “disease” that we must “cure” because it is “weakening” our country;
for violence, cycles of poverty, lack of resources and war to be used as systematic tools to construct disability in communities and entire countries.”
Mia Mingus

Internalised ableism

On a personal level, ableism makes being in the world exhausting, frustrating and demeaning.

“Navigating ableist situations is like traversing the muckiest mud pit. Ableism runs so deep in our society that most ableists don’t recognise their actions as ableist. They coat ableism in sweetness, then expect applause for their “good” deeds. Attempts to explain the ableism behind the “good deeds” get brushed aside as sensitive, angry and ungrateful.”

Haben Girma

Being surrounded by an ableist society also means disabled people internalise ableist ideas and think that society’s views about us are right. That we are less than, that we are a burden and this can build into feelings of shame and depression. When everyone around you is telling you that you are a lesser person, you start to believe them. And it’s not just people, it’s the messages we receive when we go to a café and can’t get in, or to a meeting and find no one has tested the hearing loop. All of this compounds into a loud and clear message that we are a burden, we are a nuisance and we should be grateful for any dregs of help that come our way.

The impact of ableism, on individuals, other minority groups and society as a whole is why York Disability Rights Forum exists. We are here to stand up for disabled people in York and to fight discrimination, whatever form it takes. If you want to join us, please sign up for our newsletter to find out more.

3 thoughts on “What is ableism and why does it matter?”

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