Health & Wellbeing Politics

We Need To Talk About Ableism

January 19, 2021
a white square with 16 icons on it depicting various forms of disability in black and blue colours. From top left to bottom right these icons are: someone in a wheelchair; a wheelchair in a house; someone in bed; someone helping another person using a cane; an eye with a line drawn diagnonally through it, a pair of dark lensed glasses, two hands using sign language; an ear with two arrows pointing to a hearing aid, someone sitting on a bench, someone using a cane, someone being pushed in a wheelchair; someone using a walking frame; a wheelchair user playing basketball, a wheelchair using a ramp, someone with a prosthetic leg using a cane; and a wheelchair user getting onto a bus.

Ableism is a huge issue in society, and yet it feels as if hardly anybody is talking about it. Outside of the disability and chronic illness communities there seems to be this attitude that ableism either doesn’t exist or will never affect the majority of people, which is ridiculous because we all get ill and we all age. According to Scope, 44% of pension aged people are disabled, which is almost half of all older people. You may think that you will never face discrimination due to your health, but chances are you might.

Under the definition provided by The Equality Act 2010, you are disabled if you have a physical or mental impairment that has a ‘substantial’ and ‘long-term’ negative effect on your ability to do normal daily activities. This means that people with a wide range of injuries, illnesses (both physical and mental health related), as well as diagnoses of Autism and ADHD can be considered as being disabled. Many of these conditions are invisible, meaning you cannot tell that somebody is disabled due to how they look. And yet the discrimination that disabled people face due to ableism in our society is huge.

So what is Ableism?

“Ableism is the discrimination of and social prejudice against people with disabilities based on the belief that typical abilities are superior. At its heart, ableism is rooted in the assumption that disabled people require ‘fixing’ and defines people by their disability.” Definition taken from Ableism 101 by Access Living, which is a fantastic introduction to ableism in easy to understand language, and I highly recommend reading the entire page.

Like other forms of discrimination and social prejudice, ableism sees those with disabilities as “less than”, allowing for people with disabilities to be treated in ways that we would never accept for ourselves. Examples of this include: refusing to make things accessible to all (accessibility includes not only physical aids like ramps but also large print and braille options on leaflets, closed captioning on videos, Autism friendly movie screenings etc); seeing disabled people’s lives as either “tragic” or “inspirational” and their conditions as something to be “overcome”; talking to someone’s carer instead of the disabled person; casting non-disabled people in disabled roles in TV and film; refusing to make reasonable adjustments in the workplace; and asking a disabled person highly personal questions about their disability.

Why is ableism a problem?

An article in The Guardian in 2018 stated that, “More disabled people live in poverty than non-disabled people […] Forty per cent of disabled people do not feel valued by society […] half feel excluded and only 42% feel the UK is a good place for disabled people to live”. And the divide between how disabled and non-disabled people view this is only increasing over time, with Scope’s Disability Perception Gap Report showing that 1 in 3 disabled people felt there was disability discrimination in the UK whereas only 1 in 5 non-disabled people felt this way.

Ask any disabled person in the UK about their experiences in the workplace, at medical appointments, or accessing financial benefits and I can guarantee that they will all have something negative to tell you. I have previously written about the traumatic nature of applying for disability benefits here in the UK, but there are so many more stories I could share about how medical professionals have treated me over the years or the workplace discrimination I faced in my twenties. And I am far from alone in having these experiences, because quite frankly ableism is rife in our society.

Ableism and the Covid Pandemic

The Covid Pandemic has shone a light on just how systemic ableism is, with comments such as, “it is only those who are older or already have underlying health conditions that are at risk of dying,” being commonplace. There are so many things wrong with this single statement, and yet it is repeated over and over again without question. Let’s look at it in a bit more detail…

  1. First of all, it is not only those who are over a certain age or have underlying health conditions that are at risk of dying from Covid. We have seen so many young, previously healthy patients die from Covid that it is blatantly untrue to suggest there is no risk at all. They may be at a lower risk, but the risk is still there.
  2. Even if it were only those who were older or had underlying health conditions that were at risk, their life is just as valuable as anybody else’s and should not be considered as “disposable” or an “acceptable loss”.
  3. Many people are developing long-term symptoms, which have been given the term Long Covid, following infection. It is too early to say just how long-term and chronic these symptoms will be, but the experiences of millions of people around the world who have had their lives turned completely upside down by developing post-viral conditions such as ME/CFS and Fibromyalgia suggest that a significant percentage of people with Long Covid will be affected for many years to come.

Yet despite all of this, we still hear people saying things like, “it’s no worse than the flu”, “I trust my immune system to tackle the virus”, and “it’s only those who are vulnerable who need to be in lockdown”. Not only are these attitudes naive and ignorant, they are also deeply harmful. They enable people to feel comfortable with questioning the science – hello antivaxxers and those who refuse to wear a mask! They also produce an environment where someone can openly say, “I didn’t say your life was not valuable. I said it was less valuable,” and still have people defending them and saying that their words were being twisted. I’m sorry, but how are we twisting those words?

History tells us where ableism leads…

You do not have to look that far back in our history to see that ableism leads to horrific outcomes such as eugenics and the mass murder of disabled people. When disabled people are told that their lives are less valuable, which has happened repeatedly throughout the Covid pandemic, we are in serious trouble. This is not a new issue, we’ve been fighting increasing levels of ableism in the UK for many, many years. In 2019 The Independent reported that more than 17,000 people had died whilst waiting to hear about their claim for disability benefits since 2013. And yet nothing has been done to change this system.

Why is that? Why are we not demanding change for some of the most vulnerable people in our society? Over the past few years we have begun to hear more and more about tackling other forms of discrimination and prejudice, like racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, antisemitism, and islamophobia. And yet we hear very little about ableism. A part of me feels that this is perhaps because for many of us our disability impacts on the energy levels we have available and so it’s harder for us to campaign and be vocal about it. We’re too busy having to adapt to a society that makes daily living so much more challenging. And let’s be clear about this, it is not our disabilities that make life this hard for us, it is the ableist society that refuses to make simple changes to make life more accessible for us.

We need your support!

Please, we desperately need the support of others in helping us to fight against ableism. This isn’t a battle we can win alone. We need as many voices as possible calling out ableism wherever it exists and demanding a better future for ourselves and our loved ones. But how can you do that?

Listen to and uplift disabled voices

There are so many people talking about their experiences as disabled people, but you may not see them as the things we share aren’t always the picture perfect images you expect to see online. When you’re trying to diversify your feeds, look for people talking about disability and chronic illness. Follow accounts such as Crutches and Spice, The Disabled Hippie, Mums on a Roll, Not Your Grandma’s UK, Spoonie Village, Nina Tame, Inside Martyn’s Thoughts, and The Catchpoles. Look at the people who are following them and commenting on their posts to find even more people to follow. There is a huge disability and chronic illness community on instagram in particular. And don’t just follow them, share their stories too. It really doesn’t take much effort to click the “share” button on a post. Or if you have your own blog, consider asking them if they would be interested in writing a guest post.

I asked a few fellow bloggers if they could share their own experiences with ableism for this post, to give you just a small taste of what I’m talking about. Here is what they said:

Because I look so physically well and my disability is hidden I get quizzed ( a lot) even by friends about the fact I am shielding, like I’m being ridiculous and there’s nothing actually wrong with me. When I explain it is government guidelines and I am classed as extremely vulnerable I often get made to feel I am somehow exaggerating. I do NOT want to be bloody vulnerable and would give so much not to be in my position and able to breathe without assistance, But because my disability is hidden and I am so blooming productive I feel I am disbelieved you know? And if I say I am tired or need to not go out and rest I am often made to feel like I am making excuses and I constantly feel I have to justify my unwellness to well people (even in my family). So much so I end up telling all sorts of people about my illness who really I don’t want to tell – (blimey didn’t realise how much this secretly upsets me)

Becky from Eat Simply

I am autistic and I have it where people don’t think I am encumbered in any way , they think Rain man and that is the stereotype many hold to.

Claire from Ninja Killer Cat

Oh goodness I have so many examples. Both my son and I are autistic. Ableism is more of a problem for him generally, as he is held to the same standards as other children his age. The looks and comments when he is overloaded and has meltdowns are the most obvious. I have also had comments about his development through the years. He did not walk until he was two due to poor motor skills and I had a woman (in a wheelchair no less!) say it was lazy parenting to use the pushchair and I should make him walk. I had a health visitor refuse to source him bigger nappies when he was 3/4 because “autism has nothing to do with potty training” – which is absolute nonsense.

For me, things can be more subtle. My work and some personal relationships have suffered in the past because people constantly assume I mean something different or there is ill will when I am just trying to be honest. Again, my communication style is judged by neuro typical communication styles. Even when they know I am autistic, they are often unable to see things from another perspective (the irony!).

I am also articulate and mask easily, meaning many dismiss how difficult things can be for me sometimes.

Danielle from Someone’s Mum

Watch out for microaggressions and call them out

There are so many ways in which disabled people face ableism on a daily basis. Here is just a short list of the things that you can start to look out for. Perhaps you do some of them yourself. There is no shame in admitting that you have unknowingly caused harm to another, we’ve all done it and even those of us who are disabled have internalised ableism that we’ve had to overcome from growing up in an ableist society. But there is a problem if you refuse to learn from your mistakes and change the way you act.

Ableism examples:

  1. Asking invasive questions about a person’s disability – “what happened to you then?” “Why are you in a wheelchair?” “What is wrong with you?”
  2. Questioning the validity of someone’s disability – “Why are you using a wheelchair when you can walk?” “But you don’t look sick”, Why do you have a Blue Badge for parking, you’re not disabled!”
  3. Offering unsolicited help and advice – “Have you tried yoga?” “My sister’s friend had that, she recovered by taking this supplement, you should try it too”
  4. Dismissing or belittling someone’s experiences – “We all get tired!”
  5. Using inappropriate language to describe things, “I’m so OCD about things” “She’s gone psycho” “That’s so lame”

Demand better support and visibility for disabled people

Do you know what policies your employer has regarding discrimination in the workplace? Are these properly put in place, or are they simply ignored? Can you talk to your employer about this?

How accessible are the venues you go to? What about the websites you visit and the social media accounts you follow? Do they include closed captions and image descriptions? Are the hashtags written with a captial letter at the beginning of each word so that screen readers can distinguish between the words? Can you highlight this to those accounts who don’t do this? Can you change the way you share content on your own platform?

Do you know how you would cope if you became ill and unable to work tomorrow? Would you be able to access financial support? What would that entail? Would you be able to deal with the emotional and mental impact of having to fill in so many forms and having such personal details judged by others? Can you write to your MP demanding better care for disabled people? Are there petitions you can sign?

How diverse is the media that you consume? Do you have books by disabled authors? Are there characters in your favourite TV series and films that are disabled? What about models in magazines and TV ads? Can you buy a more diverse selection of media and write to content creators and brands that are falling short in their diversity?

No matter what you do, make a difference

I know I have covered a lot of ground in this blog post and it is a lot to take in. And yet I have only just scratched the surface. I don’t expect you to have a grip on this straight away. Learning about discrimination and social prejudice is always a steep learning curve, especially if you have never experienced it yourself. But it doesn’t matter what you do, so long as you do something. Every little thing you do makes a difference, and I am grateful for every single one of you.

And if you do just one thing today, please let it be sharing this post to get it seen by as many people as possible. Thank you.


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