This is a word I have come to learn over the last few years. It can be said that you can never truly understand what someone else is going through, though I think it important to try. None of us is perfect, but it is the attempt each and every day to be better that keeps us moving forward. Many, if not most, people in the disabled community understand this word, but I felt it important to write about it as a dad who is not technically disabled but who does his best to understand because he has a daughter with an intellectual disability.
Merriam/Webster defines ableism as : discrimination or prejudice against individuals with Disabilities
Part of the reason people who aren’t in the disabled community don’t quite understand ableism is that some of what we do is based on societal norms that have built up over time. We have seen the same thinking with racism and sexism. The belief that the color of your skin make you somehow a higher or lower form of human is something that we know is ridiculous, but historically there were people who believed this to be true and perpetuated a terrible belief system that we unfortunately still grapple with. Sexism, discrimination based on someone’s gender. The fact that is still a word we need to use given all the data is an embarrassment, but none the less it too still exists.
I think for people without disabilities we need to examine how society has chosen to look at disabilities. There are three distinct models people use to discuss how society views disability; the moral model, the medical model, and the social model.
The most out of date of date of these models, if you will, is the moral model. In this model society/families look at disability as a punishment from God or a deity and families have to “repent” for whatever wrong caused this.
The medical model is looking at disability as a diagnosis or problem to be fixed. Not as a person who may simply be different then you. Looking at disabled people as broken things to be fixed perpetuates the “sympathy porn” that has been pervasive in the media.
The social model states that disability is part of life, part of the human experience. This is the model we are trying to move forward as we all seek to better understand the human condition and move towards a more inclusive/accepting society.
Part of the reason I am giving you these models to think about is so that able bodied readers can understand, that the reason many people don’t understand ableism, is that they think what they are doing is good. How can doing the right thing based on my frame of reference be wrong? The key word is “my frame of reference”.
Its all about perspective, you can not make suppositions about someone else’s thoughts or feelings if you have no basic understanding of what their life is like. You have no right to make suppositions about anybody for that matter, but even making generalizations about the disability community is inherently wrong. As a man you can’t pretend to understand what it is like to be a woman. You can support her, listen to her try to understand, but…. As a white person you will never be able to “understand” what it is to grow up a person of color. As someone who walks without thinking you will never understand what it is to be in a wheelchair. As someone without an intellectual disability you will never understand the challenges of someone with an intellectual disability.
To understand what Ableism is we must accept that WE DON’T KNOW. If we accept this then we ask, we include. How do you play the role of the person with cerebral palsy? “I don’t know, maybe we should hire an actor with cerebral palsy?”
Discrimination is discrimination. That is, we should NEVER discriminate against someone because they are different. If we accept that we don’t know then we have to ask, we have to communicate. You can’t accurately depict or represent someone if that said person is not part of the decision process.
Ableism is often harder to pin down because we don’t see it as a problem. The most recent is what has been termed “inspiration porn”. I am inspired by your very existence. Publishing stories that make abled bodied people feel good because someone else did something nice for a disabled person so we all get to share in the sentiment. It may make some people feel good but lowers our expectations for that person and in the end is harmful and can be degrading.
I want to include links by a couple people to help me since I have to admit, I don’t know.
As a dad I try to understand and one thing I will leave you with is what my daughter tells people when she talks about advocacy.
Remember: “Nothing for us without us.”