Introduction to ableism

When I received an autism diagnosis I sent the information below to my family as an introduction to ableism.

Some important words

  • Neurodiversity – the neurological differences between people (primarily people with ADHD, autistics, neurotypicals etc).
  • Neurodiversity paradigm – the concept that these neurological differences should be recognized and respected as variations, not illnesses or deficits.
  • Neurodiversity movement – a rights movement that tries to promote the neurodiversity paradigm against ableism. Like the feminist movement it says that all neurotypes (feminism: genders) are equal and focuses on the problems created by ableism (feminism: sexism).
  • Ableism – discrimination or prejudice against disabled people. The idea that disabled people are somehow lesser than non-disabled people. Comparable to sexism and racism.

Examples of ableist beliefs

  • Seeing disabled people as less autonomous and less competent
  • Seeing disabled people as less than full members of society
  • Seeing disabled lives as worth less
  • Seeing disabled people as defective or in need of fixing.

Consequences of these include disabled people having more mental health problem and higher suicide rates, being put in institutions more than necessary, being unemployed more than necessary, not being seen as equal under the law, being more likely to be the target of hate crime, sexual abuse and other crimes, eugenics. The extreme end of this is described in this article (Trigger warning: graphic violence)

Ways that ableist beliefs may manifest

  • Saying as a compliment: “I don’t think of you as autistic” – Implied: autism is something negative.
  • Saying “getting a diagnosis will only have negative consequences” – implied: there is nothing positive with identifying as you are. Or you don’t really need the support that you think you need.
  • *laughing when autistic person does something autistic* – implied: your way of being is silly or childish.
  • Acting like accessibility adjustments are over the top/coddling/a slippery slope, e.g. questioning the need for trigger warnings in texts containing rape to help people with PTSD: Implied: disabled needs are not real or if they are they are less important than normal needs.
  • Using a word like retarded or autistic as a slur. Implied: disabled people are defective/worth less.
  • Insisting on helping the disabled person with something they’ve said they don’t need help with. Implied: you don’t know what you need.
  • Insisting that a person who is expressing non-typical needs is just being sensitive or lazy. Implied: disabled needs aren’t real
  • Assuming that we live in a non-ableist society and that the way disabled people are treated is necessary. Implied: disabled people are not competent and don’t know what’s best for them.

Why do we derogate disabled needs?

There are a few reasons why we might deny, look down upon or deny responsibility for disabled needs. Mostly this has to do with being uncomfortable with needs in general, and disabled needs being more obvious. Let me explain:

Both abled and disabled people need others. But because the disabled person is the odd one out they are seen as the one with extra needs. We all need cars to get around but only people who need wheelchairs are seen as dependent. We all need other people for making our clothes, building our houses etc, but only people who need a personal assistant are seen as dependent. When someone’s needs stand out in this way they are an easier target for denial and critique.

Obviously, this is a problem if you are disabled and your needs stand out simply through you being who you are. You may be able to choose to make yourself invisible and (almost) entirely independent, but because sharing who you really are is essential for healthy relationships you are then in effect choosing not to have real relationships. This is what ableism can force us to do.

Detour – the social model of disability

The social model of disability states that a disability is caused not by the disabled person’s difference or impairment but by how society reacts to that difference. Whether society is set up to respect and meet the needs of the person with that difference. In other words: if we had a deaf society which was set up to meet the needs of deaf people then a deaf person would not be disabled in that society. Another way of expressing the same thing is to imagine a society which is organised to accommodate those humans who do not need any sleep. In such a society a person who needs 7 hours of sleep each night would be disabled. According to the social model of disability people are disabled by society, not by there being something “wrong” with their bodies.

How do we become less ableist?

So, what can we do to change our derogatory views of needs, which disproportionately negatively affect disabled people? We can recognize them and contradict them:

  1. We believe that having needs and being dependent on others is a sign of weakness
  2. This is false
  3. Having needs and being dependent on others is entirely normal
  4. Disabled or non-normal needs really are Different.
  5. Different needs are not Worse needs.

Is there something wrong with highlighting differences?

Some people respond to the neurodiversity movement by saying that we are all unique in different ways and we don’t need labels. These are often the same people who say that they are colour blind or that feminism is sexist. The problem is that these people often want to deny the different needs that people have and the different ways that people are treated in society. Usually because they are uncomfortable with needs or uncomfortable with the idea that they have privilege. They can only imagine equality in a world where our needs are all the same. I hope that the above description of ableism shows why labels matter and can help disabled and nondisabled people be seen as Different And Equal.

Audre Lorde, the lesbian black feminist writer said: “It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.”

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