Understanding Ableism, a Very Common Form of Prejudice

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People throw around a lot of “isms” these days. Most people already understand the concept of racism, sexism, and even classism. They also understand the concepts of homophobia and transphobia. All of these are forms of prejudice that people have against conditions and features that people can not change.

Sometimes, these prejudices are overt and obvious. Other times, they’re more subtle. These social ills can range from impacting single people to being institutionalized in various government agencies. As a society, we must seek to root out all forms of prejudice, especially those institutionalized in our governments. We’ve been struggling for decades to put an end to systemic discrimination based on gender, race, and religion.

Another particularly insidious form of prejudice is ableism. For those who haven’t heard this term before, it’s very straightforward. Ableism is a prejudice against people with disabilities and/or preferential treatment of able-bodied people. Ableism is rampant in our society. Despite numerous laws advocating for the rights of people who are born with or acquire disabilities through injury or illness, many people with physical and mental disabilities experience harsh discrimination that is both personal and institutionalized.

Ableism looks like people in wheelchairs finding it difficult to gain great jobs, even if they have relevant experience and advanced degrees. Ableism is also an employer’s unwillingness to accommodate issues related to serious health conditions, such as a need for more time off than the average person.

Ableism is what leads engineers and architects to design buildings without adequate access for people who need mobility assistance. It also looks like cities not caring about uneven, poorly maintained sidewalks that are dangerous for people in wheelchairs or on crutches. Ableism happens at the grocery store, when items are placed on shelves that are simply inaccessible to those who can’t stand up without help.

Ableism also looks like someone judging other people based on their performance and productivity. Human value is innate. A person’s value does not decline if they become less productive due to an illness or injury. Sadly, our society doesn’t look at it this way. Employers, government agencies, and average members of our society all judge people based on how much money they make and how physically fit they are.

If you find yourself judging people based on their weight, the way they walk, how they look, or their physical abilities, that could be a sign of ableism. If you find yourself feeling extreme pity for parents of special needs children, that is also a form of ableism.

It can be hard to recognize deep-seated prejudices in ourselves. It is even more difficult to address them and correct our attitudes. If you have ever found yourself feeling distinctly uncomfortable because you were close to somebody who had a medical condition, it may be time to sit with that discomfort and think about the reasons why you feel that way.

A person’s value does not come from how high their IQ is, how physically fit their body is, or how able they are to meet challenges. Every human being has unique value and something beautiful to offer this world. Judging people and writing them off because of something they cannot control does not contribute something positive to our society. If anything, it might stop people who have something valuable to offer from lifting up their voices to speak.

Whether someone has a visible disability or an invisible one, they deserve support from society. Only when we all stop to examine our prejudices based on performance, intelligence, and appearance can we truly start to undo the social ill that is wide-spread ableism.


For previous Ladybud articles about ableism, click here.


Photo Credit: Jackcast2015 via Flickr under CC BY 2.0