Ableism, disablism, and language

I missed Lisa Egan’s post on ableism versus disablism when it went up in 2013, but once I discovered it last year, I’ve been mulling it over ever since. Followers of disability language and politics are likely familiar with one or both terms, which are used to describe discrimination against disabled people. They are often used interchangeably (some people have a preference for one or the other), but as Egan pointed out, they actually have slightly different meanings, and depending on the model of disability you endorse, you probably should prefer one or the other.

When I’ve talked about these terms historically, I’ve noted that ‘ableism’ is preferred in the US and ‘disablism’ in the UK, but I never actually probed more deeply into this, nor did I make the connection between the preferred term and the accompanying model of disability. Disability rights activists think about their language carefully, and a core term used to describe discrimination would require a thoughtful approach, too, so I sat down to think about it a lot. I thought about it in the shower and while I was mowing the lawn. I half-started and threw away a dozen commentaries as I tried to articulate the shift that happened as I thought about her piece.

I have a slightly different approach to the subject than she does, so I highly recommend reading her post to get a different perspective and some things to think about. For me, when I started turning her post over in my mind, I thought about the other -isms we use to describe discrimination, and how they typically focus on how a marginalised group is the target of the -ism. When we say ‘sexism,’ we typically mean discrimination against women — likewise with ‘racism’ and discrimination against people of colour.

At first glance, ‘ableism’ might seem to be discrimination on the basis of ability status — putting such discrimination firmly in the US medical model, which positions disability as a personal problem. But people don’t discriminate on the basis of ability status. The problem isn’t the individual impairment, but the decision to choose to disable someone — to behave in a disablist fashion, in other words. If I refuse to provide an interpreter at a public lecture, I’m specifically disabling D/deaf and hard of hearing people who were planning to attend that lecture: I am being disablist.

‘Ableism,’ in a way, is almost a form of victim-blaming: It’s saying that people are responsible for their own impairments, and that they don’t need to be accommodated by society. ‘Disablism,’ on the other hand, puts the prejudicial behaviour on the shoulders of the person engaging in it, like racism, in which someone makes a distinction on the basis of race and chooses to act upon that perceived distinction in a prejudicial way. The problem isn’t the person’s race, or sex, or impairment, or religion, but someone else’s problem with it. 

People behave in a disablist fashion when they do not recognise the right to participate fully, equally, and independently in society on the grounds that someone’s impairment precludes these activities — disablism includes any kind of prejudicial action, like snide comments, internal judgments about disabled people, or denial of services to disabled people. ‘Disablism’ also stresses that there’s no such thing as ‘reverse discrimination’ here as elsewhere because of inherent power imbalances — if I attend an event where people speak solely in ASL, they’re not discriminating against me, because the built environment privileges hearing people and oralists. I can’t ‘disable’ people who don’t have impairments. When someone discriminates on the basis of an impairment, that person is taking advantage of social structures that permit and sometimes encourage such discrimination.

Egan brings up the example of a bus driver who refuses to kneel the bus so she can get on — a perennial problem for wheelchair users all over the world. Bus fleets are slowly being retrofitted with vehicles that kneel in the first place (originally, it was impossible to board a bus, then tricky depending on route, now theoretically possible on most buses if the bus driver does her job). Egan doesn’t have an impairment that makes it impossible to board and ride buses — she is disabled by bus drivers who choose not to kneel the bus, thus behaving in a disablist fashion. If buses kneeled automatically at all stops, it would pose no hardship to any riders, and in fact might benefit those whom at first glance might not need a ramp to board. The bus driver is allowed to refuse wheelchair users because this is how society shakes down — it’s too much trouble, she says, she was running late, there was another bus right behind her.

‘Ableism’ tucks these issues behind a nice, safe word that puts the onus for fighting discrimination on disabled people; ‘disablism’ flips the dynamic and forces people to question why they think it’s acceptable to behave in a prejudicial fashion around disabled people. As someone who endorses the social model and firmly believes in it, it’s odd to being using a term rooted in medical model attitudes — which is why I’ll be changing my language, to better reflect my understanding of discrimination and my beliefs about how it functions.

It’s my hope that the medical model will fall out of fashion, given its outdated and troubling framework for conceptualising disability — a response to truly ugly and horrific models of the early to mid-20th century, it’s had its day. The medical model has served well and should be honorably retired. In the meanwhile, it’s important to force the issue on how people think about disability, what this means for social policy, and how, exactly, discrimination works.

Image: United Nations Development Programme, Flickr