This little word, which I often find hard to pronounce, has played a significant role in my life since the day I was born.
In a nutshell, ableism is discrimination and prejudice against disabled people. It is a system that values people based on their bodies and minds and what society deems to be ‘normal’.
As a disabled woman, I often find it difficult to address or call out ableism because, like many forms of discrimination, it can come from a place of ignorance, but it can also come from non-disabled people with ‘good intent’.
One example I often encounter is when those who aren’t disabled believe they know more about someone’s impairment or chronic condition than the person with the disability.
I have a genetic condition called Osteogenesis Imperfecta – or brittle bones – which causes my bones to break easily.
It’s a collagen deficiency, not a calcium one, yet I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been told by a stranger that I should increase my dairy intake – because eating more cheese will make me walk.
This may sound rather funny, but it’s really not. I’ve had this condition my entire life and I don’t need someone to tell me to ‘drink more milk’, as if I don’t know what’s best for me.
Condescending? Yes. Patronising? Yes. Harmful? Also yes.
By telling someone their condition can be eased by doing something like eating a Cheese String, you belittle them and their ability to make decisions about their own wellbeing. If a stranger doesn’t recognise the severity of their condition, why would someone responsible for allocating disability benefits?
Everyone’s experience of disability, their conditions and symptoms are different and complex. Unless you are an expert on that condition, I suggest you keep your comments to yourself – and even then you could probably learn from listening.
I’ve also been told by a number of people that I can be cured, or that I deserve my disability because of something horrendous I’ve done in a past life. Not only are these experiences terrifying, but they’re also based on the premise that disability is a bad thing or a punishment.
It is a complete kick in the teeth to assume everyone with a disability is constantly crying into their pillows at night, praying not to be disabled.
Sure, some days are hard, but most of my daily struggles come from external factors and living in a world where a lack of access to jobs, buildings and good benefits isolates us.
But one of the most frustrating parts of ableism I’ve faced is being infantilised. It’s very rare I am treated as the grown woman that I am.
I’ve always felt pressure from men who doubt my ability to be a ‘real’ woman. They ask if I can have sex, have children or be a ‘good wife’.
“Scope has found that one in five Brits feel awkward about disability. It’s a feeling that leads to exclusion and why ableism isn’t seen as the big deal it is.”
The truth is, if you want me to cook for you every night, iron your shirt, bear your kids and have a fantastic sex life then the answer is yes, I can do that – even with a disability.
What men should really be asking is not if I can, but rather if I want to do these things.
It’s something that has impacted me greatly and has really made me doubt my self-worth. I often struggle with relationships and I find it hard to feel sexy.
Facing ableism every day really wears you down, yet we are expected to be something more. We are called superhuman, courageous, inspirational.
I’m also always bewildered when I’m told by non-disabled people that they have had an unpleasant encounter with a disabled person – ‘they were really rude to me when I was just trying to help!’ (I can guarantee you that many instances of this ‘help’ would have been ableism in play.)
The reality is disabled people are just people, we have our bad days, we can swear and shout, we can struggle with mental health on top of our physical impairments.
Putting us on a pedestal might seem at odds with ableism, but they both stem from the otherisation of disabled people.
Ableism isn’t a rarity either, Scope has found that one in five Brits feel awkward about disability. It’s a feeling that leads to exclusion and why ableism isn’t seen as the big deal it is.
It’s why non-disabled people feel comfortable using accessible bathrooms and parking bays when they have no reason to, other than it being more convenient for them.
Ableism can manifest in physical actions, verbal interactions or less obvious prejudice – all of which have significant impacts on the lives of disabled people.
I realised at a young age that if I didn’t speak up then I would be left out. If I was in a room and didn’t instigate a conversation, I’d literally be sat alone – it’s something no child should ever have to face.
The best way to de-program ableist views is to recognise what is already happening, reject those ideologies and practices and remove them from society, all of which must be done with the involvement of the disability community.
In the meantime, here are some tips I would suggest if you want to tackle your own internalised ableism.
Society has been brainwashed to believe that disabled equals wheelchair, but disability comes in all shapes and sizes. Remember that not all disabilities are visible so try not to make assumptions about why someone is taking time off work or needs the priority seat on the tube.
If you are a business owner, try and make your workplace as accommodating as possible. We’ve all heard of disabled bathrooms and accessible parking, but what about braille menu in restaurants or teaching your staff to communicate in sign language? How about quiet hours in shops to help customers with autism?
It goes without saying, don’t patronise and advise on a condition you know nothing about. Don’t take up spaces reserved for disabled people. And don’t infantilise us. Listen to disabled people and learn from us.
Finally, if, as a non-disabled person, you want to be an ally, side with us and call out ableist behaviour when you see it.