Ableism: What is it? Why do you need to know about it?

Words by Susie (she/her), 24 QLD 

What is Ableism?

Ableism is heavily engrained in our society and impacts everyone’s daily life. Ableism is a huge, complex topic. It’s short dictionary definition is “discrimination in favour of able-bodied people.

But what does Ableism actually look like in everyday life?

Ableism comes in many shapes and sizes.

Here are some examples of what ableism can look like in everyday life:

  • Asking someone what is “wrong” with them — it’s nice to show you care and want to learn more but think carefully about how you might ask or go about this.
  • Saying, You do not look disabled,” or “You don’t look sick” — this is extremely damaging especially when it is said as though it is a compliment. It can also make individuals feel like they have to ‘prove’ their disability.
  • Saying a person with a disability is inspirational for doing typical things, such as having a career — this can be very belittling and condescending.
  • Assuming a disability is a product of laziness or lack of exercise or simply not trying hard enough.
  • Using public facilities that are for people living with disabilities, such as parking spaces or toilets.
  • Questioning whether a person’s disability is real — disability can look like anything and everything and many disabilities are dynamic.
  • Asking questions like “What do you do all day?”, or “What do you do for work?” — this perpetuates the notion that a person is only valuable if/when they are productive in capitalist society.
  • Making comments like “it must be nice to stay home or not work full time” — many individuals stay home or struggle with work due to society’s lack of equitable adjustments and help.
  • Saying or indicating that a person’s situation is “not normal” – for many individuals this is normal daily life, constant reminders can be troubling. Also, using the term “special needs” is outdated and offensive.
  • You can say the word disabled – we don’t mind! In fact, there has been a #SayTheWord campaign over the last few years, encouraging people to use the term disabled because researchers and people in the disability community feel normalising the word helps to reclaim our identity. Additionally, using the word disabled promotes and encourages positive disability identity which is associated with positive psychological benefits, including wellbeing and self-esteem.
  • Don’t make a big deal about equity rights. Backlash from requests for adjustments and assistance is tough. Issues with inaccessibility are not the individual’s fault – please keep this in mind when responding to or hearing equity requests.

I personally did not even recognise the full extent of ableism until I started going to therapy. Once in therapy I started to explore my maladaptive thought processes, which included dismissing myself, refusing to ask for help out of embarrassment, and denying myself equity rights. But I began to notice my negative self-talk wasn’t entirely my fault, it grew out of ableist culture and societal beliefs.

What you say matters

Language is important when navigating ableism and embracing diverse disability identities. Words are incredibly powerful – understanding and changing our language can help decrease ableism. As I mentioned before, we encourage you to use the word disabled over other previously favoured, but condescending phrases like handicapped, handi-capable, challenged, special, special needs or differently abled.

To fight ableism, we also need to eradicate offensive language such as, lame, mad, crazy, freak, psycho or retard. Recently, Lizzo and Beyonce have been called out on separate occasions for their use of the ableist slur ‘spaz’ in their music. This backlash prompted both artists to rewrite their lyrics without the term.

We also need to focus on accessibility and not disability – use terms like “accessible parking” instead of “disabled or handicap parking”.

People should come first. Individuals with disabilities are much more than their disability so overtime there has been a switch to people-first language Instead of saying “disabled woman”, we say “woman with disability.” Of course, everyone has their own preference around terminology, so it’s always good to check but people-first is encouraged.

The media plays a huge role in how disabilities are portrayed in our society. Over the years you’ve likely heard the common use of phrases such as, “suffering from” or “confined to” a wheelchair. But it’s best to say things like “experiences”, “lives with” or “uses” a wheelchair.

How can you help?

There are many ways to support others and be anti-ableist. Here are some examples adapted from Medical News Today:

  • Learn about disability — what does it mean and how does it affect people.
  • Listen and be attentive to people with disabilities – hear about their experiences and give people with disabilities a platform, empower them to speak for themselves instead of speaking for them.
  • Challenge ableism as it happens — correct myths, support equity and necessary adjustments, call out bullying, discriminatory stereotypes and language.
  • Question accessibility everywhere you go and advocate for equity and inclusivity within your community, workplace or home.
  • Embrace diversity and diverse identities, focus on individuals’ abilities.
  • Be mindful of the words you speak and the terminology you use. Try use neutral, inclusive language.
  • Enact policies or laws that counter ableism – talk to your friends, family, workplace, managers, or local member of parliament about making inclusive changes.
  • Learn about ableism, ableist stereotypes, and the history of disability rights activism — you are already doing this one right now, keep it up!
Illustration by AileenYou can find more of her work on Instagram @aileenetc