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'Disablism': A Closer Look

The first thing that can be said about "disablism" is that most folks do not know it exists.

The term is British. In the U.S. some disability rights activists have used the term "ablism" (or "ableism") for awhile -- both terms mean the same thing, and neither term has the acceptance of terms like "racism" or "sexism" which it is designed to parallel.

Why is that? There are probably a lot of reasons, but we'll look at just two:

1. Disability rights, at least in the U.S. (which is the only place we're qualified to discuss), began asserting itself just about the time the country was turning to a conservative agenda. Extremely unfortunate. Just about that time pundits came up with the concept of "politically correct" speech -- a term cooked up in order to ridicule it -- and chief among the targets of ridicule were terms related to disability discrimination. "Ableism' came in for a particularly sound drubbing:

In its salvo against political correctness, Newsweek called it a "most Orwellian category"; it was "a spoof of itself," said Chicago Tribune columnist Joan Beck -- the watchword for political correctness run amok. When it appeared in stories, it was there almost without exception as a joke. In 1990, the year the ADA became law, Newsweek columnist Jerry Adler said the concept "does violence to logic and language."("Taking Offense," (Dec. 24, 1990). Chicago Tribune Columnist Joan Beck skewered it in her June 3, 1991 column, "As PC takes hold, the list of ‘isms' grows long and silly." (Both of these examples are from my book, Make Them Go Away: Clint Eastwood, Christopher Reeve & The Case Against Disability Rights, which could in a sense be described as sort of a long exposition on disablism.)

It may have been an unfortunate matter of timing more than anything else that all this happened; but in fact most people today hear "ableism" and simply roll their eyes.

2. The second thing that can be said about disablism is that even if people have heard of the word -- and even if they don't actually ridicule it -- they honestly don't believe it exists.

Other bloggers posting Blogging Against Disablism Day entries have made this point; Lady Bracknell in her post today says she believes "that the majority of discriminatory behaviour towards disabled people in the Western world in this day and age is unconscious."


It doesn't mean disablism doesn't exist; it means that most people don't know it exists; don't believe it when one says otherwise. "No one is against the handicapped," is how Sen. Tom Harkin (D.-IA) once put it.

And therein lies the extreme problem: Because nobody really believes that society is actually bigoted against disabled people, it's extremely difficult for ideas about disablism to gain any purchase.

This may be the single biggest problem confronting disability rights.

Put another way: nobody really believes that there's any animus -- hatred -- driving the mistreatment of people who have disabilities.

Most liberals and progressives believe that the problems racial minorities, women and gays faced were the result of animus, the work of a discriminatory society. When it comes to disabled people, though, liberals' views are similar to those who have traditionally opposed rights: They believe disabled people face essentially private, medical problems rather than problems of discrimination. What a disabled person needs, they feel, is medical intervention -- a cure. Lacking that, they should be given help, through private charity or government benefits programs.

All of that stuff is in my book.

Perhaps people deny it exists. But its effects can be seen everywhere -- in the lower standards of living, in the denied opportunies and lack of access to community and home life that disabled people everywhere face.

The conventional wisdom offers up the scapegoat of the medical model -- that is, a disabled person "suffers" because of the disability -- the disease or condition. Disabled people do indeed "suffer" -- but the vast majority of it is caused by discriminatory policies and outright denials of access.

The Ragged Edge website is replete with articles that lay out the effects of disablism in the lives of disabled people. The following very short list, crabbed together quickly in honor of BADD, is only a start. Please feel free to explore our archives for more.

The long & sorry history of discrimination against people with disabilities in the United States -- and its likely causes -- this long series of web pages is taken from the amicus brief filed by over 100 scholars and historians to try to convince the Supreme Court that Congress did not overstep its bounds in passing the ADA. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court didn't believe much if any of this; calling the evidence of discrimination against disabled people by state governments "anecdotal." (In its Garrett ruling.)

Harry Potter and the Allure of Separatism by Cal Montgomery. Amanda Baggs calls this "one of the most concise descriptions I have heard of the rampant ableism in the disability community."

Liberals and disability rights: why don't they 'get it'?

Business strikes back

Little Acts of Degradation (and its followup Dare To Resist!)

Dying In the Streets: Wheelchair Users Face Tragic Choices Nationwide

Unanswered Questions

And this list is just a beginning.

Posted by Mary Johnson


It might be true that most people are not against people with disabilities, but most people are also not about to give a person with a disability an advantage either, because that would be 'unfair'.

Actually, K. O., I think most people ARE "against the handicapped" -- but the conventional wisdom is to say "nobody is against the handicapped". In other words, it's a myth, a falsehood, but it's what's always said.

I think it's precisely because society says one thing but means something else that we have the problems we do.

It would be far better for disability rights if people just came out and said they hated disabled people, like they do with gays and African-Americans.

At least then the bigotry is out in the open where it can be confronted. The way it is now, most folks don't believe there IS any bigotry

The folks on my neighborhood association are fighting mad at me for posting my concerns about accessibility issues, and updating them on the verious "complaints" I have filed against the City. I have been attacked, repetedly, in responses to my posts on the list serve with acusations that I
am "insane" "paraniod" "fearful" and, the newest one, an "idiot."

Of course, when I object, and call this disability harassment, they respond that I deserve this treatment for "threatening" my neighbors, and my "attitude" and "behavior" is interferring with building community!

What is the threat? I state what the behavior is that I object to, ask that it stops, point out that it is disability harassment, and that if it does not stop, the remedy Is that I can file a complaint.

In terms of disablism, the premise on the list serve is, it is ok to engage in humiliating you, (me) as it is not against the law, and it is fun! They maintain that a neighborhood association is a private organization immune from disability Law, and anyway, disability bashing is not illegal anyway.

Here is one of my replys to one "gentleman"...

Let me repeat what you wrote

"To compare disagreement with your idiocy with racism or anti-semitism is just offensive."

is very revealing. The DOJ says that racism and anti-semitism and disability harassment are the same, and against the law.

You say, if I understand you, that racism and anti semitism is wrong, but not disability harassment? And, you continue to engage in this, because you believe your first amendment rights allows you to do so. And if I object, and inform you of what the law is, and what the remedy is, that is me threatening you?

Do I understand your position correctly?


So you see, disableism is alive and well among the well to do! I have been clearly informed that disability harassment is well deserved, due to my "idiocy", and on other occasions due to my "insanity, paranoia, fearfulness, etc..." and that disability harassment is not to be compared with racism or anti-semitism, as do hold such an opinion is proof of my "idiocy!"

Mind you, this is the list serve, on Yahoo groups, with over 100 members reading all of this!

Disabilisim in Britain is a concept promoted by the Charity Scope as part of their campaign for equal rights. However it hasn't really caught on in GB other than amongst politicised disabled people.

However what is interesting about the debate is that disabilisim only touches the tip of the iceberg. What about institutional disabilisim? For example I recently came across a consumer rights organisation in GB who make no provision for access to consultation meetings e.g No communication support, no consideration of holding meetings in accessible venues etc. This equates to a view that we have nothing to contribute and are only interested in 'disability' topics. Really? Well what about access to meetings on planning issues, consultations on general government policy or a whole host of things that we as disabled people have an interest in. A key weakness of the 'denial brigade' is that their own prejudices can be reinforced by their own discriminatory behaviour. Such behaviour can only ever be described as 'able-centrist' - the view that the only people who can make an informed contribution to a debate are non-disabled people.

OK - rant over!

I have been involved in disability rights activities for twenty years and the things I have observed by not for profit agencies advocating for people with disabilities is crazy. In some cases their attituides and activities are as discriminatory than the for profit private sector. I worked for a disability rights agency who paid their employees based on how much money social security would allow them to earn without loosing their benefits not what the job was worth. Talking about supporting and enhansing an underclass of people. How many of these so called parent training centers have executive directors who are not disabled? Who's making all the bucks??? It surely isn't people with disabilities. In these settings people get all the poop jobs Most of these not for profit agencies limit how many or the kind of activities which they will engage in. People with disabilities would do wht needs to be done because of because of self interest. Paternalism is nothing less than rampant in these agencies. I have recently left the non for profits and opened up my own for profit business and am doing very well. Under IDEA I am a surrogate parent and spend spend my time representing studentswith disabilities who are wards of the state.


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