If you haven’t heard of it before, ableism is a term used to describe discrimination or social prejudice against disabled people. It involves treating someone unfairly because of characteristics that directly relate to their disability.
You might be thinking it sounds similar to other things, like sexism and racism, and that’s because it is similar. The only difference is that ableism is the term used for disability discrimination as opposed to race or gender discrimination.
Even though our society is growing more tolerable of people’s differences, I still feel like ableism isn’t taken as seriously as it should be. Unlike other hate crimes, there isn’t one universal name for disability discrimination. In fact, it has several names around the world, including disablism, ablecentrism and physicalism.
I’m sure, in parts of the world where disabled people are less accepted, there’s probably not a word for this discrimination. This makes taking action against those who commit serious acts of discrimination, or teaching those who may not be aware of what they’re doing, so much harder.
But is ableism really that much of a problem?
You might have read this far and wondered why I’m making such a big deal out of this. Disabled people aren’t locked in institutions anymore, so what’s the problem?
Obviously the closure of institutions for disabled people around the world was a massive step in the right direction. With that being said, I think we still have a long way to go before things are anywhere near equal in modern day society.
There are many beliefs in our society that leave people feeling entitled to decide whether someone is disabled or not. I’ve been told I’m “not disabled enough“, whatever that’s supposed to mean, and I’m not the only one. When it comes to invisible disabilities, it often feels like you’re left fighting to have yourself recognised as disabled. Who would go around pretending to be disabled, anyway?
Ableism has definitely changed in recent years, though. It’s become more integrated in society, to the point where we don’t always realise something is ableist. To give you an idea of what constitutes as ableism, I have left some examples below.
Ableism isn’t just about the way you treat people. It’s also about the language you use to talk to or about disabled people.
This is where I hold my hands up and admit to watching a lot of YouTube. It’s so easy to sit down and tell yourself you’re going to watch a quick ten-minute video and still be there three hours later. Like many other people, I find YouTube relaxing, but the comment section? Not so much.
If someone does something someone disagrees with, a slanging match starts. More and more, these slanging matches will include ableist insults like ‘spastic’ and ‘retard’, thrown around like they’re nothing. In certain communities, I’ve even seen the word ‘autistic’ thrown around as an insult. It’s not a rare occurrence either, and these people—probably children or young teenagers—have no idea about the hate crime they’re committing.
The worst part is, if you try and call out these people for being ableist, you’ll be called a snowflake. Are you really worrying about what a few people are saying in YouTube comments when there are children starving all over the world? I’ve heard that a few times, to the point where I don’t even bother calling people out anymore.
In the last several years, there have been many stories about university lecturers banning laptops in their lectures. Many say they will allow exceptions for disabled students who provide proof, but is it really fair?
It singles out disabled individuals in a classroom and invites people to ask prying questions about their need for a laptop when they’ve been banned. Some students might avoid asking for the accommodation on the basis of avoiding said social ridicule, which isn’t fair.
Even more than that, though, is that some students may even struggle to provide the evidence they need to prove they are entitled to a laptop. As someone who has been fighting with disability services for three years, getting anything out of them is almost impossible. Even if this information is available, they may not be able to get said accommodation without disclosing embarrassing medical information first. Who really wants to tell a lecturer they hardly know about intimate, private parts of their life?
I’m sure you get the idea of ableism by now. You can probably recognise that you’ve witnessed events of ableism in your own life. In this section, however, I wanted to focus on one of the times I have been discriminated against.
If you didn’t already know, I’m autistic. This can make certain places—like dentist offices—extremely overwhelming from a sensory stand point. That’s why, when asked to disclosed any conditions I had while waiting for an appointment in 2016, I stated my disability. It was a new dentist and I wanted them to be aware that there was a reason I found dentists difficult to deal with.
In the half an hour wait until I was called through, I honestly thought nothing of the disclosure. I thought, if anything, we’d have a small chat about ways they could help reduce my discomfort/stress and that would be that.
What actually happened?
I sat down in the dentist’s chair. She says hello, introduces herself, and then reads the form I’d filled in. That’s when things take a turn for the worse.
Her own assumptions about my disability means she doesn’t talk to me throughout the appointment. At all. At one point, she even turns to my mum and asks if it hurts when she touches certain teeth. In my mouth. My mum is a lot of things, but one thing she isn’t is telepathic.
You’re probably not surprised to hear that I started crying the moment I got in the car following my appointment. I felt dehumanised and frustrated, both at the same time. As someone who is uncomfortable with dentists anyway, this definitely made it a lot harder to return to one in future.
Thanks for reading…
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