If you or someone you care about has a disability, you've probably experienced or witnessed ableism. Here's what you need to know about it, and what you can do to fight disability discrimination.
What is ableism?
Ableism is discrimination against people with disabilities. Ableism is the assumption that disabled people are less capable and less worthy of equal rights than non-disabled people. Ableism is a form of bias that is similar to racism and sexism, but applied to people with disabilities. Ableism is sometimes referred to as disablism.
The term ableism includes discrimination against people with all kinds of disabilities, including physical disabilities, chronic illnesses, neurodivergent conditions, and mental illnesses. Bias against people with mental illnesses is also known as sanism.
Ableism is rooted in myths about disability that date back hundreds and even thousands of years, yet continue to do harm today.
Is ableism a form of hate?
In some cases, yes. Ableism can take the form of overt violence and hate crimes. For example, in the UK, a recent crackdown on supposed “benefits cheats” has led to increased threats and violence directed at disabled people going about their lives. Many disabled people are neglected, abused, and even murdered by their caregivers.
In the United States, a 1927 Supreme Court ruling, Buck v. Bell, upheld a state's right to forcibly sterilize people considered “unfit” to reproduce. At least 70,000 people with mental illnesses and intellectual disabilities were sterilized against their will. Hitler greatly admired the eugenics movement, and began his genocide by systemically murdering children and adults with disabilities in institutions, before using the methods he tested on them to murder millions of Jewish, Roma, and LGBTQ people.
With all that said, although violent ableist acts are still far too common, most ableism is rooted in ignorant and outdated beliefs about disability, not hatred. You can be ableist or perpetuate ableism without wishing harm on disabled people.
Common Examples of Everyday Ableism
We live in an ableist society, so we regularly see ableism being presented as normal and acceptable. We may integrate those beliefs into our worldview without even realizing it. Ableism usually isn't meant to be malicious, and many people say and do unintentionally ableist things due to ignorance and unconscious assumptions and biases. Here are some examples of everyday ableism.
Misusing or Criticizing Accessible Facilities
Using disability parking because you're “just going inside for a minute,” abusing skip-the-line policies at theme parks, complaining about accessible features such as captions at the movie theater or image descriptions in social media posts.
Have you ever noticed how many insults are based on disability? When you call someone “crazy,” “retarded,” “spaz,” etc. you are perpetuating the idea that disability is something bad. These words are ableist even if the person you’re insulting doesn’t have a disability.
Saying “you don't look sick,” “If I were in your situation I'd kill myself,” claiming that most disabled people who receive benefits are faking, etc.
Unsolicited Medical Advice
Unwanted medical “advice” that is laced with judgment based on what the advice-pusher thinks the disabled person should be doing differently. Comments such as, “My cousin's friend's girlfriend tried yoga and isn't disabled anymore!” aren't just unhelpful, they are toxic.
Telling a disabled person they are inspirational for doing an everyday task such as going to the store.
Feeling sorry for someone because of their disability, praying for their healing when they didn't ask for prayers, or pressuring them to go to your church.
Is ableism a systemic problem?
Yes — in fact, systemic discrimination is arguably the most damaging form of ableism. Systemic ableism is found in societal and governmental rules, policies, and procedures that stigmatize and disadvantage people with disabilities. In some cases, this discrimination is intentional, while in others, it is an oversight or based on false assumptions about disability. People with disabilities are routinely abused and even die due to systemic ableism.
Can people with disabilities be ableist?
Yes, people with disabilities are often ableist toward others and even themselves. This is known as internalized ableism.
We live in the same society absorbing the same negative messages about disability as non-disabled people. If we are born disabled, we may grow up feeling unattractive and unworthy. If we become disabled later in life, we may fear that our lives are over because we’ve always viewed disability as a tragedy.
History is full of self-hating people who were part of the same group they oppressed, and disability is no different. But as with non-disabled people, ableism among disabled people tends to be based in ignorance rather than malice.
How can we stop ableism?
We all agree that ableism is bad, but what can we do about it? Here are a few simple tips to stop ableism.
Support accessible businesses and disabled-owned businesses.
You don’t have to be a wheelchair user to choose to shop at the store that has a ramp and avoid the one that doesn’t. When shopping for gifts or hiring a professional, choose small business owners with disabilities. If you're an employer, hire people with disabilities.
Learn about disability history and ableist laws and policies.
You’ve probably heard about the civil rights movement for racial equality, but do you know anything about the disability rights movement? Do you know which laws and policies in your country and state perpetuate systemic ableism? The more you learn, the better an advocate you can become for yourself and others.
Challenge your assumptions about disability.
Think about a particular disability – what’s the first image that comes to mind? Do you think it’s accurate? Chances are you’ve imagined some sort of stereotype. Taking the time to learn about people with that condition can change your perspective and make you a better ally.
Check your language.
Talking about people with respect helps to remind you to treat them with respect. Work to remove ableist words and phrases from your vocabulary, especially those that insult people with mental illness or intellectual disabilities.
Speak up when you hear ableist comments.
If you have a friend who is constantly using the R-word, say something. If someone is talking about people faking a disability to get benefits, tell them that's extremely rare and in reality, many people who need benefits can’t get them because the process is so strict and complicated. Write to your Congressperson about laws to improve life for people with disabilities. You don’t have to be disabled to advocate for disability rights.
What can we do to end ableism?
Share your thoughts and experiences with our community in the comments.
Founder and Editor-in-Chief of The Ability Toolbox. I received my BA in English from Stanford University and MA in Clinical Psychology from Antioch University Los Angeles, and have worked in entertainment and health media for over 20 years. I also blog about traveling with a disability. As a wheelchair user with cerebral palsy, I am deeply committed to amplifying the voices of the disability community through writing and advocacy.