How do you think about people with disabilities? It’s an uncomfortable question, and just reading it can cause our defenses to rise up – but why? Why does that question immediately make us raise our guard? Well, because all of us have implicit biases that show up as internalized ableism.
What is internalized ableism? Ableist implicit biases are negative unconscious and unintentional prejudices that impact the way we think, approach, react, and judge disabled people. A simple example is automatically feeling pity when you see someone in a wheelchair.
We have these biases because we live in a society, and global world, that was built without any consideration for disabled people. The people who built our society did not regard disabled people as a functioning part of it – and as a result, disabled people have been systemically excluded. Until Section 504 was passed in the late 70s, disabled children were even excluded from education.
Systemic ableism feeds implicit biases. For example, if non-disabled children never interact with disabled children in their schools, then they assume that disabled children can’t go to school. We pick up these kinds of biases throughout our lives because we live in a society filled with them. This means that although we may not consciously have any desire to be ableist, we live in an ableist world so we all have internalized ableism in us – even if we don’t want to.
However, we can consciously work to change our unconscious biases. We’ve put together 4 questions you can ask yourself to begin identifying the ways internalized ableism shows up in your everyday life.
1. What do I think about the word “disabled”?
Many non-disabled people feel uncomfortable with the word disabled – particularly when speaking directly to disabled people. This is because we view disability as a negative thing. Our internalized ableism makes us feel as if we are saying something rude – when in reality “disabled” is just a descriptor.
In a conversation with National Public Radio, Lawrence Cater-Long, an activist with Cerebral Palsy, said that “…anyone who would dare to assert that race ‘doesn’t matter’ or that they ‘see the person not the gender’ would instantly, and I think rightfully, be called out as either naive or ignorant. Similarly, to suggest disability is simply a ‘difference’ and has no impact on a person’s life is a very privileged position to take. Most disabled people don’t have that luxury. The assertion flies in the face of reality and minimizes the very real discrimination disabled people face.”
Carter-Long started a hashtag campaign #SayTheWord about the words disabled and disability. On this, he stated, “If you ‘see the person not the disability you’re only getting half the picture. Broaden your perspective. You might be surprised by everything you’ve missed. DISABLED. #SayTheWord.”
Once we accept disability and disabled people, we stop seeing the word as tainted or “negative” and start giving disabled people the right to claim this part of their identity openly and without shame.
2. How often do I consider disabled people when I think about my environment or the environments I create?
If you’re non-disabled or don’t have anyone in your close circle with a disability, then it’s easy to unconsciously disregard disabled people when it comes to our environment because of the internalized ableism within us.
When it comes to disabled employees, it is so important to have accessible working environments. Either you are excluding current employees or you are preventing your company from being a place where disabled people are able to work. Studies show that having a disability-inclusive company with disabled employees sees double the net income, 30% higher profit margins, and 28% higher revenue. Therefore, having an inaccessible working space isn’t only a detriment to disabled people, it’s a detriment to business.
3. How do I feel when I see disabled people?
Many people, when they see disabled people whether in person or represented in media, they have feelings of pity. Why? Because society paints life as a non-disabled person as better than that of a disabled person. While disabled people do face their own unique difficulties and struggles, everybody faces difficulties in life. A disabled life is just as fulfilling and valuable as a non-disabled one.
When we see disabled people, we should not shy away from them, or feel sorry for their appearance or how their bodies function. Disabled people are people, and all bodies are good bodies. In order for disabled bodies to come as accepted as non-disabled bodies, we need more media representation. Although disabled people make up 25% of the population, they are only represented in the media 3.1% of the time. This number needs to increase to 25% in order to be an accurate representation of reality.
4. What do I think about disabled children being in separate classrooms?
Many people see no issue with disabled children being placed in special education schools or classrooms. However, if we had to replace the word “disabled” with any other minority in that sentence, then we would see that as clear segregation and a human rights issue. We need to change our mindsets and work on our prejudices toward disabled people. Studies show that the large majority of disabled children do extremely well in inclusive classrooms. Inclusive classrooms are general classes with accessibility and accommodations made for disabled children – such as ASL interpreters, audio textbooks, and height-adjustable desks.
Doing this kind of internal work on our own biases isn’t easy. It’s uncomfortable, but it’s worth it. Not only do we grow as people, but we ensure that the society we’re a part of and contribute to will move forwards instead of backward. At Joshin, we are committed to consistently learning, challenging ourselves, and growing in our thinking and practices.