May 01, 2006

'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

Posted on May 01, 2006