Why I Don’t Talk Much About Ableism
For years we have heard about sexism (discrimination against a gender, usually females) and racism (discrimination against a race, usually non-whites). People may be less familiar with ableism. What is ableism?
The Centre for Disability Rights gives this definition for ableism:
Ableism is a set of beliefs or practices that devalue and discriminate against people with physical, intellectual, or psychiatric disabilities and often rests on the assumption that disabled people need to be ‘fixed’ in one form or the other.
I do believe that there is such a thing as ableism. Many aspects of our society are set up to favour those without a disability. (See my post What is a Disability?) Someone recently suggested a test to see how accessible an area is. Take your bicycle and note when and how often it is difficult to push that bike around inside a building. But this is much more than just being wheelchair accessible. It is about our assumptions concerning disabilities.
While I do believe that issues surrounding ableism need to be discussed, I do not spend much time on it. I do try to be a disabilities advocate but without focusing on ableism.
One is that ableism includes offending people by our words. We should seek to be sensitive with our words and I argue against the use of the r-word (retard) but frankly, it is impossible to speak at all without offending someone. For example, I once heard a video by a young man with Down Syndrome speaking about the r-word and in his talk used “dumb” in a pejorative sense. Someone may be bothered when talking about the images of walking or seeing or hearing. While most people with disabilities won’t care, some will be offended. Enforcing speech that avoids any hint of ableism is almost impossible. Be sensitive and try your best, but you always fail someone.
More importantly, labeling someone as ableist tends to shut down the conversation. Someone may do or say something out of ignorance. We can write them off as ableist or we can try to educate. Labels can easily put up roadblocks to advancement. While ableism exists, it may be better to discuss assumptions and consider alternatives rather than falling back on the labels.
I’m sure that there are some people within the disability community that would disagree with me. I’m thankful that there are people who fight against ableism but I have decided to take my advocacy in a different direction.