What Is Ableism? Fighting Assumptions About People with Disabilities

May 4, 2022

Ableism is discrimination against people with disabilities. It assumes that people with “typical" abilities do things the correct way, and that people who do things differently are less capable. 

While ableism has been described as a buzzword, it’s a useful term for describing harmful assumptions and prejudices. Importantly, “ableist" is not an insult — while you’ll want to avoid being ableist, the simple fact is that most people hold ingrained prejudices that can impact those in the disabilities community. Recognizing those prejudices is the first step to addressing them. 

Ableism often starts with good intentions

When discussing disabilities, we often use language that implies that people need to be “helped.” This assumes that the disabilities community is incapable of helping themselves — and that’s certainly not the case. 

Language is an important aspect of ableism. Consider these common phrases: 

  • “You’d have to be blind not to see that…"
  • “He’s wheelchair-bound.”
  • “His words fell on deaf ears.”
  • “You’re insane if you believe that...”

All of these phrases make the assumption that certain abilities are more useful than others. Saying, “you’d have to be blind…" starts from the assumption that blind people are less perceptive than others, while “he’s wheelchair-bound" indicates that wheelchair users are permanently attached to their assistive devices. 

The language that we use when discussing disabilities can devalue the experiences of people who live with those disabilities. In many instances, we don’t intend to use discriminatory language — and if you’ve used ableist phrases, that doesn’t make you a bad person. However, by considering how we use language, we can become better allies and avoid decisions that negatively impact others.

Related: A Quick Style Guide for Writing Disability-Focused Content

Ableism isn’t always obvious — but it’s always avoidable

Fighting ableism isn’t just about changing the words we use. Ableism starts from the assumption that certain characteristics are more “desirable" than others, which leads to discrimination. 

Some examples of ableist discrimination:

  • Asking people uncomfortable or invasive health questions related to their disability
  • Setting up an office without physical accommodations for those who need them
  • Requiring employees to participate in video conference calls without accommodating their disabilities
  • Not hiring or promoting someone because of their disability
  • Failing to consider people with disabilities when creating a website, web application, or mobile app
  • Not believing someone when they discuss their conditions

The effects of ableist behaviors can vary greatly, but unfortunately, most people with disabilities have encountered some form of discrimination. According to one report from the University of Chicago at Illinois, about 30.1% of voters with disabilities experienced some form of difficulty when voting in the 2012 U.S. elections. People with disabilities reported discrimination when applying to jobs, obtaining medical care, working in offices, and searching for housing. 

Related: Career Websites Must Be Accessible. Is Yours?

Start avoiding ableism by recognizing assumptions

Remember, about 1 billion people worldwide experience some form of disability — those people aren’t “helpless,” and they certainly don’t need pity or condescension. 

To be an ally, think about how your decisions can accommodate different types of abilities. By using better language, advocating for accessible workspaces, or by simply listening to the experiences of people with disabilities, we can become better allies.

Some simple ways to fight against ableism:

    • Learn as much as you can. While we shouldn’t assume that we can fully understand the experiences of others, we can learn about ableism and research disabilities. Consider following disabilities advocates on social media. Platforms like the Disability Visibility Project are excellent resources for learning.
    • Ask about individual preferences. Some people prefer person-first language when discussing disabilities; others prefer identity-first language. When discussing disabilities with individuals, use their preferred terminology. 
    • Don’t get defensive. As you learn about ableism, you might recognize ways that you’ve accidentally offended people with disabilities. That can feel uncomfortable — but remember, nobody is perfect. It’s important to recognize prejudices and correct your mistakes. 
    • When making decisions, consider all types of abilities. If you’re planning a conference call, ask whether the call will be accessible for people with hearing disabilities. If you’re planning a new office, make sure it’s physically accessible for people with conditions that affect their mobility. Recognize any assumptions that could affect others — and wherever possible, involve people with disabilities when making decisions.

Ableism and Digital Accessibility

Finally, remember that ableism isn’t restricted to offline spaces. Most websites and mobile apps have accessibility issues that affect real-life users, and these barriers occur because of unchecked assumptions about how people use the internet. By embracing digital accessibility, your organization can fight ableism and reach a much wider audience. 

If you’re creating a website, ask yourself whether pages are useful for people who use screen readers (software that outputs text as audio or braille). Provide captions and transcripts for videos. Pay attention to color contrast ratios. 

Remember, every decision will affect your audience. By following the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and working with accessibility experts, you can create useful content for everyone. 

To make your journey easier, the Bureau of Internet Accessibility provides a Compliance Roadmap with free resources, self-service tools, and detailed guidance for creating a long-term strategy.

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