Zero Discrimination Day: A Discussion on Ableism

A young male walking down the street holding a white cane.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. 

-US Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, 1776 

Do we believe that all people are created equal? It seems most would agree intellectually—stating nobody is more important than another—but we know there have been and can be personal or cultural biases that preclude us from fully recognizing the inherent value of every individual. We have witnessed this hurtful truth with racism, sexism, nationalism, ageism, and, the topic at hand, ableism. 

It’s Zero Discrimination Day and we want to end the discrimination that is ableism. That’s a big task. Let’s start by looking at how ableism is defined and by learning how to identify it.  

Defining Ableism 

AccessLiving states, “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. Like racism and sexism, ableism classifies entire groups of people as ‘less than,’ and includes harmful stereotypes, misconceptions, and generalizations of people with disabilities.” 

Similarly, in his TedTalk, Brendan Campell states, “Ableism is a form of discrimination in favor of able-bodied people and discrimination against people with disabilities. Ableism creates a hostile environment for people whose bodies just don’t fit the able-bodied norm. In my opinion, ableism remains one of the last, broad, socially acceptable forms of discrimination.” Campbell also shares his perspective on ableism as a young adult with an invisible disability as well as Professor Elizabeth Barn’s perspective on disability as “a mere difference.” 

Identifying Ableism 

The following statements, beliefs, and scenarios can be discriminatory because they incorrectly assume people with atypical features (whether physical, intellectual, neurological, social, or other) have lesser value or fewer inherit rights. 

7 Ways You Might Be Ableist Without Knowing It states the following are discriminatory: 

  • Making somebody’s disability their most important trait 
  • Using terms such as “retarded”, “feeble-minded”, “brain damaged” as insults 
  • Being condescending about the “bravery” or “struggle” of someone’s disability 
  • Assuming someone with a disability isn’t capable and/or “coming to their rescue” 
  • Asking unsolicited personal questions about a disability… Does this mean all disability questions are rude? No! However, one shouldn’t assume they have a right to someone else’s story. 

The Ridiculously Simple Way to Know if Something is Ableist states the following are discriminatory: 

  • Casting judgment on an individual using a disabled parking pass who appears able-bodied. [I’d add casting judgment or not believing an individual is blind/ low vision who is using a white cane or dog guide.] 
  • The author suggests the following to assess if a statement is discriminatory: If you replace a disability statement with a racial statement and it’s discriminatory, the comment is discriminatory. An example statement is provided regarding “I would be okay with inclusion, but people with disabilities would be distracting in a classroom”. Could you say you’re not okay with Hispanic people in a classroom? Nope! So, it’s discriminatory.  

In his Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness article, Time for the Tough Conversations: Ableism and Racism in the Field of Orientation and Mobility, Lee Staub raises awareness of ableism taking the form of a teacher or instructor holding power over clients who are blind or low vision. He shares a story from his time teaching graduate-level Orientation and Mobility students who were learning to provide services to adult learners. He brought in a panel of adults who are blind/ low vision to share their perspectives with the class. One panelist shared about a time she asked her mobility instructor to teach her how to cross a street near her home, but the instructor stated the intersection was too dangerous and she wouldn’t teach it. The panelist described the experience as a power-imbalance, one in which a non-disabled person is the decision maker for the person with a disability.  

Lastly, it can be hurtful and/or discriminatory to make assumptions about an individual who is blind. Don’t assume the accommodation needs of a student or employee who is blind or low vision, don’t assume a workload needs to be modified or reduced, don’t assume how an individual must feel about blindness, etc. Don’t assume. 

My hope is that the brief review of ableism can increase our awareness and cause us to ask ourselves hard questions. It has certainly made me aware of comments and probing questions I shouldn’t have asked, as they were rude, insensitive, or, as I now understand, ableist. You may recognize the same, whether or not you have a disability—because, yes, people with disabilities can discriminate against others with disabilities too.  

Let’s know better so we can do better. 

Because all people have equal value.