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Ableism Is More Than A Breach Of Etiquette — It Has Consequences

By News Creatives Authors , in Leadership , at February 17, 2022

What’s the point of working against disability prejudice — also known as ableism?

Sometimes it seems like the fight against ableism boils down to little more than making sure not to offend disabled people. It certainly helps make disabled people’s everyday lives better if they can get through a day without having to put up with annoying or hurtful comments. But there’s much more to ableism than giving personal offense. Ableist assumptions, ideas, habits and even language are problems worth fighting because they lead to actions that materially affect disabled people’s lives.

Individuals, organizations, and companies should obviously do their best not to offend disabled people. But businesses and organizations in particular should focus on more than just not offending disabled people, but on recognizing and disrupting the kinds of ableism that cause real, lasting harm.

Here are three of the most common ways ableism produces real-life, concrete discrimination that harms people with disabilities.

Poor accessibility

A restaurant’s owner decides once again put off installing a ramp at a two-step entrance and making a restroom wheelchair accessible.

Disabled customers and their friends are annoyed to run into more barriers that should have been removed decades ago, and at being disappointed not to be able to try the restaurant’s food. People who have lived with physical disabilities for a long time also come to feel like every unaddressed barrier is like a sign reading, “disabled customers not wanted.”

But the problem is more than irritation. Every unnecessary barrier in businesses, offices, and public facilities restricts disabled people’s mobility, and puts another part of the community out of their reach. Likewise, failing to provide information and communication in alternative formats — including websites and social media — further isolates and impoverishes the everyday lives of people with visual, hearing, and communication disabilities.

It’s so obvious that it should hardly be worth mentioning, but a good first step businesses and organizations can take to fight ableism is to make sure their facilities and services are accessible. It’s been over 31 years since the Americans with Disabilities Act made accessibility a nationwide legal standard, and failure to ensure it a violation of disabled people’s civil rights. In 2022, there is virtually no reasonable excuse for any business or public facility to be inaccessible to people with disabilities.

Disabled people today are in many ways far more free and mobile than ever before. But they almost all still encounter physical and design barriers that shouldn’t be there. These barriers are more than just a personal affront. They compound disabilities themselves, and make disabled people’s struggle for independence and freedom harder — in some cases out of reach.

Negative stereotypes

An employer may know the basic rules of disability non-discrimination in hiring, But they may still pass over applicants and employees with disabilities because of deeply embedded assumptions about people with physical impairments, mental health problems, or chronic health conditions. Ableist stereotypes, assumptions, and misconceptions are offensive when expressed directly and individually. But they are also deeply damaging, especially in the job market.

For example:

  • A lot of employers still assume that disabled people aren’t strong or reliable — that they are more likely to be out sick or unavailable for important tasks at crucial moments, and less able to work hard, for long hours.
  • Too many managers still believe that disabled people make ”high maintenance” employees — that they need more supervision, coaching, and special accommodations. They assume, almost without thinking about it, that people without disabilities or long-term health conditions are easier to deal with.
  • Some business owners believe that disabled employees complain too much — that they pose a risk of workplace conflict and legal problems. They worry that any small act of ignorance, an insensitive joke or misused terminology, can result in headaches and maybe lawsuits.

These probably seem like common sense to some employers. Their hiring practices certainly suggest that they think so. But these are attitudes and prejudices, not facts.

Most disabilities aren’t particularly disruptive or debilitating, at least in reasonably accommodating and accessible work settings. All kinds of employees complain, are needy, and cause trouble, not just those with disabilities. If anything, managers tend to rate people with disabilities as better than average employees.

Disability stereotypes like these are based largely on outdated and narrow perceptions of disabilities themselves and what disabled people are like. When allowed to go unchallenged, they result in more disabled people who can’t find a job, and others losing out on career opportunities that would otherwise improve their financial security, professional development, and independence.

This form of implicit ableism, which otherwise well-meaning employers can be unaware of, contributes a lot to the persistently high rates of unemployment among people with disabilities. This, too, is far worse than insulting or offensive to disabled people. The personal and financial damage done to individual disabled people, and the disability community, is massive.

Technical compliance with the employment non-discrimination laws liike Title I of the ADA certainly helps. But it’s not enough. Employers and everyone else in the workforce need to be alert to the common stereotypes of disability, take steps to unlearn them, and make sure these changed perspectives go into effect in real life hiring and management.

Fear and disgust

Some forms of ableism are easily recognized, because they are so raw and overt. They aren’t hidden or subtle at all.

Some people just seem to instinctively find disabled people unsettling, revolting, or in a strange way morbidly fascinating. These feelings are hard to hide, and almost impossible to justify. Nearly everyone agrees it’s wrong and shameful to avert your eyes and run away from a wheelchair user, point at laugh at someone with noticeable body differences, or stare at and take pictures of a Little Person. But people still do these things, and worse, every day.

In the 19th and early 20th century, feelings of disgust and alienation towards disabled people were regularly given the weight of law. Disabled people were institutionalized, not just for benevolent protection and care, but to remove them from public sight. There were even “ugly laws” that made simply appearing in public with certain disabilities illegal.

Today, there is far less formal justification for this kind of raw ableism. But it still exists. And this intense stigma feeds itself. People see how disabled people are stigmatized and bullied. That just reinforces the assumption that disabled people’s lives must be miserable. Which in turn reinforces the fear of disability itself, and of disabled people. It’s a feedback loop that further devalues disabled people.

It’s important then to recognize and resist any offensive reactions of disgust, morbid fascination, or instinctive unease when interacting with disabled people. That should be obvious.

But it’s also vital to oppose institutionalizing disabled people — in large developmental disability institutions, group homes, mental institutions, nursing homes, and other “care facilities” that separate, concentrate, and regulate people with disabilities. These are institutional legacies of 19th-century ableism. And they are more than offensive. They thwart exactly the kind of independence and community integration most disabled people want most.

Seemingly small beliefs, reactions, and decisions about disability can affect disabled people a lot. Learning the right words to use is important, but it’s not enough.  The first step in fighting more deeply embedded ableism is to recognize that it’s more than just a breach of etiquette or abstract social justice concept. Ableism affects disabled people’s most fundamental opportunities, freedoms, and human rights.

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