04 June 2021

Ableism ?!

The word ‘ableism’ has gained much currency these past few years. I have noticed the hashtag increasingly being used by the disabled community across social media. Yet, it has no doubt remained a mystery to many. But for Disabled people, the activists among us, it has become hugely significant, as it represents a parity to sexism, classism, homophobia, racism, religious intolerance… words used daily to denote the organisational, institutional and structural injustice many individuals from marginalised groups face.


A working definition:

Without a definition, there is no way of identifying the characteristic discrimination imposed on disabled people. If we don't speak about ableism, it doesn't exist, because it is not something we give time to - or that we acknowledge. I work to two definitions based on what I’ve read:

Ableism: a specific type of oppression, akin to homophobia, racism, classism, ageism, and sexism, held in the culture and language that inform society’s debates.

Anti-ableist: a defined position against ableism, the characteristic oppression that disabled people face - as in feminist or anti-racist.  Theorising, for example, with an anti-ableist legitimacy involves explicit reference to disabled people as tellers in a storytelling that holds their interests at their heart.


I work as an anti-ableist, which means in seek in my practice, and my writing, to articulate an opposition to the ableism in the world around me. Notwithstanding the experience of individuals, and while allowing them choices of identity, I act to disrupt the institutional and societal narratives that perpetuate ableism. Disabled authors have gone to great efforts to define their experience, by doing so they encourage us to focus on the injustice they face.  Moving beyond issues of identity is critical, because while the predicament of impairment or difference and personal prejudice is significant, but it does not go far enough to explain the startling figures that characterise the inequality the disabled population face. Yet it is an inequality many cannot put a word to, despite its toxicity and omnipresence, the storytelling that surrounds us is ableist.


In the same way that critical race theory has given us a language to articulate the structural racism people face, critical disability theory has led to a growing terminology for the societal discrimination imposed on disabled people as a marginalised group. As a specific, insidiously hidden discrimination, ableism has a unique character. The idea that disability sits on a continuum at the opposite end to ability is to misunderstand the meaning of the marginalisation imposed on disabled individuals. If there is an opposite, it isn’t perfection, skill or ability, but a lack of privilege - the possibility of living without being viewed as a problem. It is the notion of ‘able’ as the norm that defines the unearned privilege afforded to those who do not need to answer questions about their difference. Beyond individual experience, ableism is held in conversations at group, department, organisational, local and national levels. Each holds a distinct way of silencing, or distorting, the voice of disabled people by denying their experience, domesticating their ideas, appropriating their knowledge or refusing to theorise by including divergent ideas.


It is not so much that people go out of their way to speak badly of disabled individuals, it is more so that we’ve become accustomed to believing the tales we hear about them. Therefore, disabled authors are less frequently referred to as trusted and truthful storytellers. More often found in specialist literature, their accounts are often absent from organisational, institutional and public debates. Furthermore, in the media, disabled people are often described as saints and sinners that laud or vilify their individual stories. It is in the globe-local storytelling that the voice of disabled people is erased. Furthermore, we’ve forgotten to question why. When written into guidance, policy and strategy, the assumptions derived from the saint/sinner stereotype become apparent, not as a caricature so much as forgotten altogether. That’s to say most will forget to think of disabled people as a sizeable population entitled to parity rather than the isolated individual needing to get off their backside – because the saints are doing it so valiantly. Ableism is not written into organisational accounts, however, documents such as audits, reviews, external communications, and annual reports generally fail to name the negative impact of the business on the disabled population. Thus textual worlds fail to articulate an opposition to the institutional disablism within a sector or the ableism in society more widely. Therefore, failing to acknowledge the contribution to human rights erosion imposed by growing inequality, and the lack of measures to gauge it, while attention is focused on what makes money.

A cycle of misrepresentation 

How does a gap in legitimacy grow between organisational accounts and the voice of D/deaf and Disabled People’s Organisations?  Why is there an absence of measures calculating prejudice, disablism and ableism? A lack of response-ability towards the disabled population. 

A vicious circle: 


Stereotypes lead to assumptions which lead to feelings and behaviour in a cycle that perpetuates ableism

As the diagram above illustrates, a cycle is perpetuated in conversations where the speaker reacts to what they have heard about disabled people [prejudice], rather than question the storytelling that misrepresents them. In the assumption that what the speaker has read or heard is correct, many will repeat largely exaggerated ideas, rather than stand against the ableism within the account. In society's storytelling, where the voices of disabled people are missing, their interests are often replaced by problems based on assumption -  rather than disabled people's experience or research evidence. In turn, these unchallenged beliefs left unquestioned drive negative attitudes. In this cycle, ableism often goes unnoticed, hidden in words, phrasing or sayings that seem innocuous but no doubt harm. This harm will be reacted to more or less subconsciously, with feelings and reactions in individuals who may also internalise ideas about themselves - the stereotypes. 


Often the gap between what we believe and what we think is so great, that it is hard to think ourselves out of a stereotypes by changing the words use or the actions we take.  

How do we interrupt this cycle?

Each arrow calls us to stop and think in order to change things in different ways.


Spot the stereotype: there’s no easy solution, foremost we need to be willing to learn from disabled individual's experience, knowledge and professional wisdom. That's disabled authors as storytellers: activists, professionals, academics, and D/deaf and Disabled People’s Organisations. Personal accounts will vary, and no disabled individual owes another a story. There are forests of information [books, websites, videos, podcasts…] take it steady. I suggest short introductory texts, preferably with a degree of rigour, based on evidence, because while unique perspectives can be made to fit a dominant narrative [ableist], getting the framing right alters the narrative.


Small red arrow

Challenge assumption: Reflection isn’t easy, but time taken to think about immediate re-action, to determine why we act / think certain ways, may interrupt a bias we aren’t aware of.  The pervasive, often innocuous, nature of stereotypes in our conversations and across media, means there is lots to unlearn…. Literally unthinking the unthinkable is a job in itself. Disabled or not we owe it to those around us to figure out the lies and the myths that perpetuate negative ideas in storytelling

Small green arrow

Consider the tellers: try to understand stories from an alternative perspective, placing disabled authors as the pen-holders. In most everyday conversation, the tales we tell, the unchallenged storytelling, erases the experience, knowledge and wisdom of disabled people. Sometimes in ways even they cannot put into words. The more you hear you’re rubbish, worthless, weak, wrong, pitiable… the more you believe it. The more you feel rejected, the more you fight or give up. No two disabled individuals will have the same feelings. [heavens, my feelings change every hour on the hour]. I’m always grateful when people interrupt my learned thinking. 


Small blue arrow

Understand communication: behaviour that confounds you may indeed be a challenge to be more empathetic. Are disabled people responsible for stereotypes, or have we led them to act in response to a single choice between saint or sinner?  No one can answer this without first trying to understand the internalised ableism may lead individuals to do things that mistily those around them. Hushing the voice that says you’re rubbish, work harder, prove ‘em wrong, show strength, hide vulnerability, is not only difficult but hugely exhausting. 

Be disability specific – anti-ablism 

D/deaf and Disabled People’s Organisations present an authentic source of the population’s interests in a way that unites a multitude of voices on a joint vision. Activism is a more complex notion than choice of identity and personal experience, as it draws on evidence and knowledge which can also subject to ableism. It certainly is a way of avoiding the problems often attributed to disabled people as a group. 


Human rights and movement interests: 


The human rights of the disabled population as stated by DDPOs include education, transport, employment, housing,  justice, leisure, family and community life


For professionals willing to address this matter, Disability Equality is a subject area based on disability studies that provides a good entry point. No doubt due to the barriers faced by disabled individuals, and the lack of recognition the Disabled people’s movement receives as an equivalent voice within civil rights groups. There were no words framing ableism until recently, akin to feminism, sexism, homophobia, or white privilege. Despite an era of rising social awareness, the institutional and societal injustice specific to disability had no name, no voice, and little more than a network of grassroot organisations with an oral history.



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