Editor’s Note: This is the second part in a three-part series on ableism. Part 1 of the series discusses the question: “What is ableism?” Part 2 examines the types of ableism. Part 3 discusses ableist micro-aggressions and how we can combat ableism.
Although ableism is often subconscious, it has harmful and long-lasting impacts on persons living with disabilities. Prejudice and negative misconceptions and attitudes about disability are so embedded in society that creating positive change is very challenging. Ableism affects individuals, groups, and society as a whole. This article will discuss and identify common types of ableism that continue to shape societal beliefs, perceptions, and attitudes today.
According to Pullrang (2020), there are three forms of Personal Ableism. The author illustrates personal ableism and provides examples. The first form of personal ableism Pullrang (2020) describes is when an individual feels incredibly “awkward” when around a person with a disability, or any person who seems “different”. Pullrang (2020) further explains how ableist behaviours can manifest in many ways. These behaviours may include feeling nervous, behaving in an awkward manner, feeling disgust when one sees a person whose body looks “different”, and avoiding talking to people who have disabilities (Pullrang, 2020). The second form of personal ableism Pullrang (2020) addresses is negative stereotyping of persons with disabilities or sub-groups within the disabled community. These stereotypes may include: making assumptions about the personality of a person with a disability (ie: sweet and innocent”; relating specific stereotypes to certain disabilities such as all people who are blind wear dark sunglasses, read braille, have hearing loss, and use a guide dog; and putting disabilities in different levels of hierarchy based on merit or value (Pullrang, 2020). Pullrang (2020) provides a fine example of this: “the widely held belief, even among disabled people, that physical disability isn’t so bad because at least there’s “nothing wrong with your mind”” (Personal Ableism, para. 2). The third form of personal ableism discussed by Pullrang (2020), is holding resentment towards people with disabilities based on the misconception that they receive “special treatment” or have “special privileges”. An example of this includes: the attitude that people with disabilities have access to the best parking spots, that people with disabilities don’t work and receive monthly government cheques, and that they have “special” privileges such as qualifying for certain discounts and public access with a guide dog or service dog (Pullrang, 2020).
Ableism exists at both micro and macro levels. Systemic problems continue to exist within society and negatively affect marginalized individuals and groups. Systemic ableism is similar to systemic racism and is deeply rooted in our social structures. An ableist culture is the result of generations of stigma, prejudice, lack of awareness, and discriminatory acts against people with disabilities (Ping, n.d.). According to Ping (n.d.), most forms of ableism fall into this category. This form of ableism is so embedded in our culture and society: “…this encompasses all unconscious and oppressive action, lack of action, language, and thought” (Systemic Ableism, para. 4). Although today’s culture is moving towards a more equitable, inclusive, and accessible society, people with disabilities continue to experience discrimination and ableist attitudes and misconceptions. According to Pullrang (2020), systemic ableism includes:
- “laws and regulations that restrict the freedom and equality of people with disabilities”,
- “social policy that seeks to “care for” disabled people through intensive supervision, protection, and isolation…”,
- “policies and practices that seek to reduce or eliminate disability from society…” (Pullrang, 2020, Systemic Ableism, para. 1-3).
In order for positive change to policy and laws to occur, people need to come together, speak out, raise awareness, and lobby governments and policy makers. As a person with a disability, I believe it is vital for us as individuals to educate others and re-shape societal perceptions and attitudes people have about people with disabilities.
Internalized ableism derives from the continuous ableism people with disabilities face in their daily lives. Internalized Ableism occurs when an individual experiences ableism, and in the process then internalizes the ableism they experience (ARCID Services, n.d.). An individual who experiences internalized ableism is often unaware of what they are experiencing. Internalized ableism is difficult to identify and is very harmful to a person’s self-esteem and self-worth (ARCID Services, n.d.).
The internal dialogue people have with themselves is deeply rooted in how they perceive themselves and their abilities. If a person with a disability internalizes how others negatively perceive disability, the individual may begin to believe the stigma, stereotypes, and misconceptions about self and about their disability. As a person who is blind, I am aware of negative stereotyping and stigma. However, I did not fully understand what ableism was or how it has deeply impacted me or others with disabilities.
As I reflect on my personal experience having a disability, I recognize that I have been deeply impacted by ableism. As a person who is blind, I have experienced poverty and faced barriers to employment, housing, inclusion, and accessibility. I have experienced prejudice, discrimination, and oppression. I have also been vulnerable to internalized ableism. Over the years, I have experienced feelings and beliefs that are based on fear and that negatively altered my thoughts and self-worth. While attending university, I often belittled myself emotionally and verbally. At times I felt inferior compared to the rest of my academic peers. Having a strong network and support system in the blind community helped me to gain confidence and self-esteem. However, societal attitudes, negative stereotypes, and micro-aggressions were something I experienced daily. The thought of looking for employment once I graduated with my BA from Vancouver Island University was daunting. Although I have had goals and dreams of working in social services helping others, I had a very difficult time believing that an employer would hire me, even if I was the ideal candidate for the job. When this type of negative dialogue enters my mind, I have to stop what I am doing, meditate and pray. I am also not afraid to reach out to my peers who are blind who understand me in ways others are unable to. I have gained confidence, independence, and healthy self-esteem. I have accepted and embraced my vision loss and know that I am an individual who is loved, respected, and valued. I have a passion for social justice, helping others, and sharing and learning from my peers and others in my community. I have adopted a positive philosophy of blindness and believe in myself and my abilities. Over the past nine months I have done content writing for the Pacific Training Centre for the Blind and the Canadian Organization of the Blind and Deafblind. I have also more recently been employed in social services with an organization very close to my heart.
Ableism comes in many forms and is deeply rooted in the fabric of our society. People with disabilities are negatively impacted by ableism and the prejudice, stigma, and stereotypes they continue to experience in their daily lives. Whether conscious or subconscious, ableism is harmful, and it hurts. It is damaging for individuals, groups, and society as a whole. For positive change to occur, people need to be informed and understand what ableism is, what it looks like, and the harmful impacts it has on people with disabilities. As a collective, all people must come together to advocate, educate, and take a stand for an equitable, inclusive, and accessible society. Beyond that, we must press on. As Mahatma Gandhi clearly stated: “You must be the change you want to see in the world” (Shapiro, para. 5).
Tune in next week for another Saturdays with Shauna post where Shauna will discuss ableist micro-aggressions and how we can combat ableism
ARCID Services (n.d.). Internalized Ableism and The Impact, Retrieved May 27, 2021
Ping, J. (n.d.). What Is Ableism? Retrieved May 27, 2021
Pullrang, A. (2020). Words Matter, and It’s Time To Explore The Meaning of “Ableism”, Retrieved May 26, 2021
Shapiro, D., & Shapiro, E. (2017, December 6). Be The Change You Want to See In The World, Huffington Post, Retrieved May 28, 2021