What is Ableism?

What is Ableism?

By Kelsey Lindell

A recent study showed us that many HR and DEI professionals don’t know where to start when it comes to talking about disability. What those HR and DEI professionals don’t realize is that this uncertainty is rooted in ableism. All of us are steeped in ableism because it is an intrinsic part of our society. So, most of the time, the oversight of including disability in HR and DEI initiatives is completely unintentional, because it’s the result of implicit bias and systemic ableism.  Let’s not be afraid to address ableism head-on and discuss how it shows up in our lives.

So, what is ableism? The most basic definition of ableism is a prejudice against people with disabilities,  but that doesn’t give us enough information to fully understand the concept. 

Ableism manifests itself in multiple ways, but the two biggest categories we’re going to talk about in this article are systemic ableism and internal ableism.

When we talk about systemic ableism, we are also inevitably exploring the entanglement it has with sexism, white supremacy, colonialism and capitalism. Ableism works alongside these other forms of systemic bias or oppression because these ideas are all part of what forms the expectation for an  “ideal”  body and mind. These biases lead us to believe that the best body is one that is non-disabled in body and mind, and often white, male, tall, athletic, and verbally gifted. 

These forms of systemic oppression combine with an implicit bias to label any body or mind form that is “other” than that “ideal” as “less than.” 

When I am describing “a system of oppression”, I mean that there is and was a particular perspective/way of thinking, that believes that disability is a bad thing. This perspective was shared by most of the people who built the legal, physical, and political infrastructure that we all live in; and the result of that shared negative perspective is the oppression of subgroups of people – whether intentionally or unintentionally. Because the individuals who crafted how our society functions shared this negative thinking towards disability, we are automatically steeped in these same beliefs just by participating in the world that they built. 

Their way of thinking didn’t adequately capture the lived experience of people with disabilities, so even basic things can become “oppressive”  because they create obstacles, challenges, and barriers for disabled people.  People continue to replicate the same exclusive forms of thinking, which then has the ripple effect of creating more and more ableist elements in our world. In some cases, it might even be that systems are simply based on old research and understandings that need to be updated as our society learns and grows.

Many people incorrectly believe that because the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed in the 1990s, we no longer have to worry about systemic ableism. Although the law indicates that everything should be created with inclusivity in mind, the reality is that the ADA is not a self-enforcing law. The burden of enforcement relies on disabled people advocating for themselves.  There are no checkups to make sure that people are actually adhering to this law, and the process to file complaints is so long, emotionally grueling, and expensive that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reports less than 13% of complaints of discrimincation are settled

When the burden of enforcing anti-discrimination laws falls on the marginalized community they are supposed to protect, the law becomes ineffective.  This happens because the community that is being discriminated against has to hold the discriminators accountable without any support from our legal infrastructure. 

Therefore, Ableism still manifests itself in forms of exclusion or segregation. This includes things like assuming there are no disabled people in your social circles, businesses, or recreational spaces – and not taking the time to think through the question of  “what if there are disabled people in my sphere?” That’s what we call “implicit bias” – those automatic assumptions that we aren’t usually aware enough of to even question. 

Ableism matters because, statistically speaking, the incredibly important issues which the disabled community faces have not gotten better since the ADA. This is due both to the lack of enforcement, and the ableist implicit bias that lives in all of us. And, based on the 2020 census, the vital issues facing disabled people are getting worse: 

Systemic oppression and implicit bias have worked together for thousands of years to create a never-ending cycle of ableism that prevents disabled people from accessing their basic human + civil rights. The system we’re a part of needs to be revisited because it has been designed by people living with implicit biases, which leads to intentional or unintentional oppression. We all need to examine our own implicit biases and how we personally perpetuate ableism. We need to pay attention to how ableism intersects with other forms of systemic oppression too – such as racial oppression, gender oppression, and homophobia. Doing this is what will make our system more equitable.

If you’re ready to take the next step to learn more about ableism and implicit bias, we’d love to help you with you next steps towards allyship for disabled people. Book a demo today!

Kelsey Lindell is a disability DEI advisor and activist who combines her lived experience as a disabled woman, activism experience working with international organizations across the world and professional experience in the marketing, communications and production industry to help individuals and businesses transform the way they think about disability. Kelsey teaches from a lens of disability justice and clearly articulates how ableism is in everything – in our society, in our workplaces and in us. While this revelation can seem daunting for many, Kelsey leaves audiences with optimism of what they can do to become better advocates in their communities.

Photo of disability rights activists in 1990 by photographer Tim Olin.

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