The Many Faces of Ableism
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How can able-bodied Australians call out ableism when some of us do not really understand what it means? Monique explains the many guises of this insidious and often invisible form of discrimination, and asks us all to actively challenge our able-centric conditioning.
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The Many Faces of Ableism

by Monique La Terra See Profile
Sydney NSW, Australia
13th Jun 2017
The Many Faces of Ableism

More than 4 million people in Australia live with a physical or mental disability, and while the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (DDA) was passed by Parliament over two decades ago to protect those with disabilities from discrimination, the truth is that Australia remains a largely ableist country. In fact, many if not all communities around the world have maintained an ableist bias. The repercussions of this should not be underestimated, and can often lead to long-term mental health issues. 

So what is abelism? The Oxford Dictionary defines it as “discrimination in favour of able-bodied people.” This pervasive social attitude preferences the able-bodied over individuals with perceived impairments. Consequently, communities are established that do not serve the needs of people with disabilities. The word itself suggests that in order to be normal and to fit into society, you need to able-bodied. 

Language Discrimination

While ableist discrimination most commonly derives from the able-bodied, the topic of internalised ableism is often explored within disabled communities. Etymologically speaking, the prefix ‘dis’ is inherently negative and can be traced back to the Ancient Greek prefix ‘dys’ meaning “bad, ill, abnormal”. Subconsciously, we’re raised in full awareness of this negative connotation which has led to unconscious ableism.

Phrase constructs and the concept of person-first language versus identity-first language is another contested topic. The American Psychological Association (APA) encourages the use of person-first language where focus is placed on the person, not on their disability. This is preferred by those who wish to separate their impairment from their identity; for example, “a person with autism.” On the contrary, identity-first language refers to the impairment before the person; for example, “the autistic person”. This is preferred by those who consider their disability an integral part of their identity. The argument here is that separating a person from their disability Implies that the impairment is an undesirable attribute and that the individual needs to be separated from it.

The third issue concerning language is the dismissive use of ableist vocabulary including words such as cripple, retard, crazy, insane, dumb, idiot, lame, lunatic—the list goes on. These slurs have been integrated into our everyday language to the extent that people have become desensitised, and often throw them around flippantly. Freedom of speech may be a luxury we all share; however, we have a responsibility to become more aware of our language choices and the impact they can have on others.   

Accessibility and Able-Bodied Privilege

We live in a world where able-bodied people are considered the norm, and where discrimination exists in our very failure to create a society accessible to all. This lack of accessibility affects the quality of life of people with disabilities, and can have long-lasting mental health impacts. Social anxiety and the belief that one is a burden to society is disturbingly prevalent in people with a lived experience of disability. So how can able-bodied people help dismantle their privilege? The very first step is to recognise it. You may not think much of having the option to either take the stairs or use the elevator. However, for those who don’t have that option an overcrowded or broken elevator has much more serious implications.

Autonomy Assumptions

Although well intended, assuming that a person with a disability has no autonomy implies that their impairment has robbed them of independence, and that they are in constant want or need of help. Depending on the disability this may be true to varying degrees; however, we should never help someone without first asking them if they want or need our help.

Able-Bodied Curiosity

Human beings are naturally curious creatures. While our curiousity has led to some marvellous things including cronuts (praise be), it also means we’re hard-wired to question the irregular. This can lead to a particularly problematic form of ableism where able-bodied people feel entitled to an explanation from those with disabilities. This sense of entitlement is an extension of able-bodied privilege. The reality is that we are not entitled to an explanation from anyone with a lived experience of disability. While some choose to be transparent about their experiences, others do not. It is entirely up to them.

The Paradox of Normalcy

Ideally, a society free of ableism would mean all resources are accessible, inclusive and accommodate to everyone, not just the able-bodied. For this to happen, deeply engrained attitudes must be challenged and the definition of ‘normal’ must be reimagined. Normalcy as it stands is a warped ideology; no-one fits into it and yet it is the yardstick we use to judge others. Ableism privileges the able-bodied and assumes that disabilities are problems to be overcome. In reality, what really needs to be overcome is the deep-seated notion that imperfections make a person inferior. Disabilities don’t make for a problematic society, but an ableist society makes life problematic for those with disabilities.

To learn more about disability etiquette and inclusive language, check out The Australian Network on Disability’s Understanding Disability Factsheet

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Monique La Terra

About Monique La Terra

Monique is a freelance writer from Melbourne, who has recently finished writing her first novel. In 2016, Monique was appointed Director of Culture at the Culture Trip Melbourne, and for the second year running, has been involved with the Ian Somerhalder Foundation. Monique has a Diploma in Professional Writing and Editing and a Diploma in Fashion Styling, and has taken short courses in Screenwriting, Anthropology, American Politics, and French.

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Identity, Minority Voices
Sydney NSW, Australia
13th June 2017

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