Just because it’s ableist, doesn’t mean it’s bad

by Cara Liebowitz

I see the word ableism getting flung around a lot lately.  Most of the time, it’s justified ableism.  But people toss it at others like a knife.  Like a weapon.  Like it’s a word that’s meant to hurt.  And then the recipients, the one who are being informed of their ableism, get offended and very hurt, because the connotation associated with all these -isms is that they’re bad, very bad and if you’re an ableist, then you’re a horrible horrible person who needs to go sit in a corner and shut up.

Ableism doesn’t mean you hate disabled people.  It doesn’t mean you’re an evil person.  It doesn’t even mean you think disabled people aren’t capable of anything, although all of those qualifiers can certainly fall under ableism.  Ableism is the system of oppression that faces disabled people in our society, a system that marks disabled people as inferior and most importantly,other.  It doesn’t have to be done with malice to be ableism.  It doesn’t even have to be done with conscious intent.  Ableism is separating society into us and them, sequestering disabled people into this category of not-entirely-human, mythical type people that are: a) so sad and tragic and/or b) sooo inspiring!!

Ableism is dictating that there is a right, a ”normal” way to be, and disabled people aren’t it.  Ableism is merely “tolerating” us instead of accepting us for who we are and embracing the differences that make us unique.  Ableism is preaching that diversity makes us stronger, and then conveniently leaving disability out of that equation. Ableism is believing that we have a lesser life, that we suffer, because we are disabled.

Ableism is “otherizing” us.  Ableism is using language that really has been used over generations to attack disabled people, to tell us that we are not normal and as such, we are less than human.  And ableism is using that language without any idea what it has done, how many people it’s hurt, because society doesn’t want us to know how, in a society that’s supposed to have conquered discrimination the way we conquered countries, millions and millions of people were systematically threatened, bullied, and slaughtered.  Ableism is never speaking about disability history, never even knowing that there is a history, because our history is not considered history.  At best, our struggle for rights is largely viewed as a cute little adolescent rebellion, complete with whining protests and stomping of feet.  At worst, it is completely wiped from the collective consciousness, because the world doesn’t want to see us, hear us, acknowledge our existence beyond using us, our stories, as a tool to make the privileged feel better about themselves.  Ableism is using us as scare tactics, as examples of what you don’t want to be.  Ableism is assuming that our lives are inherently less worth living than yours.

Ableism is having only one definition of disability, and only viewing a disabled person as one way.  Ableism is calling the rest of us fakers and benefit scroungers, because we don’t fit yourdefinition of disability.  Ableism is cutting the services that we need to survive.
Ableism is putting disabled people in a box, a box that is never opened and has very clear edges.  Ableism is never recognizing that you or someone you know may be disabled, because they have a productive life.  Ableism is thinking that it is okay, even commendable, for disabled people to want to die, because our lives are not worth living.  Ableism is killing us before we have the chance to live, all because of a pre-conceived notion of what our lives will be like.

Ableism is warping the public notion of an entire group of peopleas “so smiley and happy all the time!” Ableism is reducing us to a caricature of human beings, painting us all as one shade of a color, when in fact we are as diverse as any other group of people.  Ableism is dividing a diverse community into “high functioning” and “low functioning” and deciding that only those who fit your idea of “high functioning” can possibly have anything to say.  Ableism is defining disability as solely an unfortunate happening, and not recognizing the social and cultural factors that oppress us.  Ableism is denying that you have privilege, that you can feel safe, because you are nondisabled.  Ableism is a world that is centered on the nondisabled, instead of being welcoming for everyone.  And truth be told?  Ableism is claiming that there is no ableism.

You don’t have to know that ableism exists to be an ableist.  Nor does being an ableist mean that you are a horrible, soulless person.  Being an ableist just means that you have privilege you need to acknowledge, and patterns of thought that you need to change.  So what should you do if someone calls you out on your ableism?  Take a step back.  Reflect on your privilege and what you said or did.  Recognize why someone may take offense at that.  If you don’t understand why it’s ableist, don’t start pointing fingers at the other person, claiming that they are oversensitive.  Ask politely, and think on their answer.  Apologize, and learn a lesson.  You are not evil because you are an ableist.  You are simply an ableist.  So take the opportunity to learn about your own privilege.  Hopefully, you’ll come away knowing more than you did before.

Originally posted at Butterfly Dreams.

3 thoughts on “Just because it’s ableist, doesn’t mean it’s bad

  1. This is the crux of the matter:

    Ableism is the system of oppression that faces disabled people in our society, a system that marks disabled people as inferior and most importantly,other.”


    I think it’s generally more useful, when educating someone about something they’ve said or done is problematic, to refer to the behavior, action, thought pattern, etc., as ableist, and not the person as “an ableist.” There are exceptions, like Peter Singer or Clint Eastwood, who go out of their way to do ableist things, but most ableism occurs every day, by everyone. As a disabled person, I have plenty of interalized ableism.

    As a white person who tries to confront/oppose racism, I still have racist thoughts and beliefs that swim around under my consciousness and then periodically pop up. And I think, “Ack, where did *that* racist idea come from? Let’s get rid of that.” If a POC points out I’ve said or done something racist, I do not assume they are saying, “You are A racist [shithead],” but, “What you just said/typed/did is racist and hurt me.” It behooves me, as an ally, to do what you said about listening and owning and trying not to make the same mistake twice.

    Same deal with ableism. If I bring up something a nondisabled person has said or done that I’m upset about, I pretty much try to avoid using “the A-word,” unless I think that would help make things clearer between us. What happens sometimes is that those who are usually acting as allies and think of themselves as allies, screw up (as do we all) and hear that they are essentially being called on ableist behavior (even if I have avoided using the word) and say, “So, you think I’m an ableist?! I’m some sort of ableist asshole!?” And then I have to deal with that baggage. It’s escalated. I have to deal with *their* anger and hurt, which I am generally in no mood for and already exhausted. That sucks.

    I try to reserve calling someone “an ableist” for the people who are really going out of their way to be oppressive assholes. Otherwise, people are simply behaving in an ableist way. Big difference, IMNSHO.

  2. question here,
    is it ableist to want to eradicate disability–to want a world where no one is born with Down Syndrome or cystic fibrosis or cerebral palsy or MS? Or is that kind of like wanting a world with no race, which is not possible because racism is already inherent in society and people will always perceive each other’s differences before their similarities?

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