Feminism 101: What is Ableism?

Image by David Morris via Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0.

Ableism is sometimes projected by those who have never experienced any sort of physical or mental disability—and consequently none of the harsh marginalization that accompanies disability.

Ableism is often ignored by able-bodied people because they typically interact and communicate with the disabled community with good intentions. However, these intentions can be misinformed and often supplement harmful forms of oppression.

One common form of ableism is inspiration porn. A well-known example is the use of the “your excuse is invalid” quote on a picture of a disabled person who is participating in some form of mental or physical activity. This “motivation” blatantly emphasizes able-bodied thoughts such as “look at how much worse your life could be.” But people with disabilities do not see their lives as less valuable because they have a disability.

Nonetheless, these images objectify people with disabilities for the benefit of able-bodied people and wholly imply that disability is a bad thing. Disabled people don’t want to be defined by their disability nor do they exist to be your “workout inspo” or any other type of inspiration, for that matter.

Infantilization is another form of oppression that disabled people face. When talking to someone with disabilities, people may raise the volume of their voice and slow down their speech even if the person they are speaking to is not hard of hearing, or talk to a person or family member who might be accompanying the disabled person, rather than directly addressing the person they’re talking about. These actions are misled, condescending engagements that blatantly tell people with disabilities that able-bodied people see them more as children than equals.

Ableist language incorporates inspiration porn, infantilization, and other forms of ableist oppression. Ableist language includes but goes far beyond the word “retarded” because it’s normalized through its integration into our textbooks, novels, television shows, and internet culture. For example, the phrase “cute but psycho” is reblogged on Tumblr, posted on Instagram, or printed on a Brandy Melville shirt or phone case with little thought about the damaging connotations this language gives to mental disabilities.

Able-bodied people don’t get offended when they see “blind,” “crazy,” or “crippled” used as descriptors. For people with disabilities, however, description that uses their disability with a negative connotation indicates that they are unwelcomed, unintelligent, less entitled to rights, and seen as having something wrong with them.

People with disabilities are not your own personal social lesson, and you’re not entitled to any of the questions you want to ask about their disability. Physical disability and neurodivergence are not wrong, nor do they indicate that disabled people need to be “fixed” or “cured.” In fact, many disabled people prescribe to the social model of disability because they see themselves as more disabled by the society and norms constructed around them than by their own bodies.

Yes, there are accessibility laws in place that make things such as wheelchair accommodations a requirement, but these laws do not address all the difficulties people with physical or mental disabilities face, nor do they always ensure equality.

By looking at disability through an intersectional lens, we can create a space for disability rights activists to speak. Understanding and equality for people with disabilities will grow as we learn how racism, classism, lack of reproductive justice, police brutality, unemployment, incarceration, and other forms of oppression interact with disability.

In our efforts to be intersectional, we must be conscious and considerate of those around us. According to the 2012 census, one in five people in the U.S. has a disability. It’s time that disability be accepted while the normalization of discrimination against the disabled community be rejected.

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