Saturdays with Shauna: What Is Ableism?

A photo of Shauna and guide dog, Barney, taken in May 2021, in their home area of Victoria, British Columbia. They are crossing a street. This is a front facing view of Shauna and Barney working. Shauna  is wearing her long blonde hair pulled back in a ponytail, and is wearing a white T-shirt, navy blue jeans, a burgundy cardigan, black sketchers, and caring a bright yellow purse. She is also wearing dark sunglasses, that have silver frames. Barney is a black Labrador retriever, wearing his GDB harness, black Martingale collar, black gentle leader, and brown leather leash.
Shauna and guide dog, Barney. Photo credit: Shauna Sproston

Editor’s Note: This is the first part in a three-part series on ableism. Part 1 of the series discusses the question: “What is ableism?” Future parts will dig even deeper into ableism, with part 2 examining the types of ableism and part 3 discussing ableist micro-aggressions and how we can combat ableism.

Although today’s era is moving towards a more equitable, diverse, and inclusive society, persons with disabilities continue to experience discrimination, social inequality, marginalization, and oppression. Persons with disabilities are often not consulted with or considered when designing buildings and other infrastructure. Due to this mindset, we continue to live in an “ableist” society. Ableism can be defined as “discrimination of and social prejudice against people with disabilities based on the belief that typical abilities are superior” (Access Living, n.d. S…what is ableism? para. 1). Misconceptions and beliefs are embedded in the attitudes of society about persons who have disabilities. Typically, people who have a disability are regarded as in need of being “cared for” or “fixed”. For many who live with a disability, society identifies them by their disability. Ableism is similar to sexism and racism, in respect to an entire group of people are considered to be “inferior” (Access Living, n.d.). People who do not have disabilities may be unaware of the inequalities, discrimination, and barriers persons with disabilities face on a daily basis. Often people are unaware of how ableist our world is and how it is designed for persons who do not have disabilities. Ableism is so embedded in societal attitudes and norms that sometimes it is unintentional, while in other situations it is very deliberate (Stop Ableism, n.d.). According to Axtman (n.d.), ableism stems from disability history, a lack of experience and knowledge about disability, negative stereotypes of the abilities of persons who have disabilities, sympathy, policies and practices (Where does ableism come from?, para. 1).

Ableism at the Macro Level

Persons with disabilities experience layers of oppression. Ableism exists at both the macro and micro levels within society. Some examples of ableism at the macro level may include the following:

  • Groups’, businesses’, corporations’, and governments’ non-adherence to disability rights legislation such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), in the United States, and the Accessible Canada Act (ACA), in Canada.
  • Exclusion of children with disabilities from attending the mainstream school system
  • Separating or restraining children and adults with disabilities as a means of controlling persons with disabilities
  • The segregation of children and adults with disabilities into institutions
  • Failure to design accessible buildings and infrastructure to accommodate persons with disabilities
  • Designing websites, apps, software, and technology that is inaccessible
  • Unwillingness to provide reasonable accommodations to persons with disabilities
  • Using rhetoric that is harmful and mocks persons with disabilities (Access Living, n.d.).

What Does Ableism Look Like at the Micro Level?

As a person with a disability I advocate for myself everyday while navigating my community. It should not be my responsibility to educate the public, however I think that it is essential in order to raise awareness and create positive change. Some examples of ableism at the micro level include:

  • Holding a meeting or an event at an inaccessible venue, which excludes some people from being able to participate or attend the event
  • Using someone’s mobility aid, leaning on someone’s mobility aid, or taking a person’s mobility aid away from them
  • Portraying disability in a negative fashion: as traumatic or sensational on news networks, movies and other forms of media
  • Casting an actor who is not disabled as a character who is disabled
  • Making a film that does not include Audio Description (AD), Described Video (DV), or closed captioning
  • Using an accessible washroom or washroom stall, when you are able to use an inaccessible washroom or washroom stall
  • Speaking to a person with a disability as if they are a child, or speaking about them instead of directly to them, and/or speaking for an individual with a disability
  • Asking a person with a disability intrusive questions about their medical background, personal information, or their disability
  • The misconception that disabilities must be visible in order to be classified as a disability
  • Interrogating a person with a disability about their situation, or questioning a person’s disability (Access Living, n.d.).

As a person with vision loss, it is invasive and unacceptable if someone was to say to me the following: “Are you actually blind?”, “You don’t look blind!”, “How did you lose your sight?”, or “How many fingers am I holding up?” It is important to educate others to create positive change for all, particularly for persons living with disabilities. As a collective we can take a stand against ableist views, attitudes, perceptions, and policies. If we use our voices, raise awareness in our local communities, and lobby government, we can help create a more inclusive and accessible society that appreciates people for their diverse backgrounds, ideas, skills, and abilities. We can all do our part to make a change. According to DO-IT (2021) “The more we refuse to recognize the potential of disabled people, the more everyday people become ignorant of reality. Change starts with everyone working together. Ableism is defeated by actually talking to people with disabilities and realizing they are people first” (para. 8).

Tune in next week for another Saturdays with Shauna post where Shauna will discuss different types of ableism.