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What is ableism?

Chances are, you’ve started to hear the term “ableism” being used in conversations about disability.

A torn piece of paper on the ground with a person in a wheelchair icon on it

Chances are, you’ve started to hear the term “ableism” being used in conversations about disability.  Slowly but surely, people are paying more attention to the needs, rights, and voices of people with disabilities. Shining a light on ableism is an important part of that process. So, what exactly is ableism, and why does it matter?

Ableism basics

At its most basic level, ableism is discrimination or prejudice against people with disabilities. It can be intentional or unintentional, and it shows up in a broad variety of ways. Obvious examples include not hiring someone because of their disability, not making a building or public space accessible, or mocking and degrading someone for their disability. 

But most forms of ableism are much subtler. They’re woven into our attitudes, institutions and culture—even our language. Think of expressions like “the blind leading the blind” and “that’s so lame.”

A closed sign hanging in a storefront window
A “closed” sign hanging behind glass.

Ableism affects people with disabilities both in a practical sense, preventing them from accessing or engage fully with education, work, and other aspects of everyday life, and in an emotional and psychological sense, leading to feelings of anger, isolation, and frustration. 

It would be impossible to list every example of ableism. But here are two of the most common ways that people with disabilities experience it. 

Attitudes and assumptions

One of the most pervasive forms of ableism has to do with the way that non-disabled people perceive people with disabilities. Whether consciously or unconsciously, many people think of people with disabilities as being “less than.”

They see disability as a defect, or something that needs to be fixed, as opposed to simply one more aspect of human diversity. They may think of people with disabilities as fundamentally different from able-bodied people—an “other” instead of part of “us.” These beliefs lead to ableist actions and assumptions such as

If you’ve done or thought any of these things, it doesn’t make you a bad person. Even people with disabilities themselves can fall into ableist thinking and behaviors. What’s important is being aware of your own assumptions or prejudices and working to change them.

Ableism can exist within a physical space

Our society has made a lot of progress in making buildings and public places more accessible for people with disabilities, thanks to regulations like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). But many aspects of our physical world are still partially or completely inaccessible. Not considering this fact when planning meetings, events and activities is a form of ableism—as is taking the attitude that you shouldn’t have to plan around the needs of just one or two people.

A close up of a white cane touching yellow line tactile markers on a sidewalk.
Tactile markers are essential for those who are blind or visually impaired.

A company is being ableist, for example, if it plans a rigorous hike as its summer outing, knowing that there are disabled employees who won’t be able to participate. Likewise, it would be ableist to plan a child’s birthday party at a noisy, crowded arcade when you know that the child’s best friend has a sensory processing disorder. 

Like other forms of ableism, ableism around physical spaces is almost never done intentionally or maliciously. Most non-disabled people simply don’t take ability into account on a day-to-day basis, since they don’t have to.

Being less ableist means being more conscious of the way people with disabilities navigate the world, understanding their needs, and striving to meet them. The best part is that what’s better for people with disabilities is often better for everyone. (That rigorous hike, for example, probably wouldn’t be a big hit with pregnant or elderly employees, either.)

A path forward

Example of an accessible keyboard that sits on a wood desk. The keys are yellow with big bold black font.
The keyboard pictured above is accessible to those with visual impairment.

Unlearning ableist habits and attitudes is a lifelong journey. The best way to learn is by listening to the voices of people with disabilities and seeking out a wide variety of perspectives. Know that every person’s experience is unique.

The more we listen, the more we examine our assumptions, and the more we widen our understanding of the human experience, the closer we’ll get to creating a fully inclusive world.

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