• The EDI Magazine

Why We Need to Unlearn Ableism

Millie Lord provides an insightful extended piece into society's prejudices against those who are disabled, challenging readers to reflect on their own preconceived ideas and misconceptions about what it means to be able-bodied and what must be done for greater inclusivity.

Artwork my Holly Overs (Instagram: @heovers)

Let me set the scene. You're with a group of friends, who you consider kind, socially conscious, and liberal- in a nutshell, ‘woke’. As Black Lives Matter has recently (and necessarily) exposed, even the most ‘liberal’ of groups can contain deep subconscious prejudices, which are built into our systems. However, I usually find that in liberal groups, if a racist, or sexist, or homophobic joke is made, or slurs are used, although (questionable) people laugh, someone will always challenge the bigotry. The one exception, that is still considered perfectly acceptable to joke about, is disability. Whether joking with friends, in a political debate, or chatting, the spectre of ableism is always seen as acceptable in conversation. I have rarely seen anyone step in and challenge assumptions about disabled people. This has been especially visible at university, where ableism is as common as skipping lectures. 


Even the most ‘liberal’ of groups can contain deep subconscious prejudices, which are built into our systems.

Perhaps the reason why I notice this is because I have been lucky enough to grow up alongside Florence, my older cousin who has Down’s Syndrome and is a medal-winning athlete for GB Down Syndrome Swimming. Coming from a family that sees disability as part of normal life, I’ve come to realise that ableism is everywhere. No matter how ‘woke’ the group, ableism is rife. Whether this is seen by using derogatory slurs like ‘retard’ or ‘mong’ to insult someone, doing mocking impressions of people who are clearly mentally disabled, or making fun of the autisticm, ableism is the prejudice that is never called out. It is ignored and normalised,  even within movements touted as intersectional, ignoring the fact that disability intersects with other systemic disadvantages. 


Those who claim to be inclusive often ask, “What's the harm in joking?” The answer to that is that ableist jokes stoke the fires of exclusion, maltreatment, and prejudice. Jokes and malicious humour, whether well-intentioned or malevolent, have always reinforced ableism by instantly labelling the disabled as an undesirable ‘other’ to normal human society. 


Jokes have “100% contributed to exclusion” says Veronique Garrett, an advocate for  disability rights, and my aunt. Since having Florence, 26 years ago, she has campaigned on inclusion and disability rights in countries including the UK, North Macedonia, Russia and Kyrgyzstan.


“Primarily, [jokes] make them out as being different, unusual, a curiosity.” And the disabled are not a curiosity; they make up 20 million of the working age population globally. Despite the fact that disabled people are (newsflash) humans just like anyone else, and demographically significant, common ableist jokes set the disbaled apart as something strange, and deserving of mocking. 


I’m not trying to ruin fun: as Veronique argues, disability “does not have to be humourless”. Self-deprecating humour, black humour and witticisms about disability are common within the disabled community; many find it cathartic to joke about their condition. A great example is Francesca Martinez, a comedian, who has cerebral palsy, but simply refers to herself as ‘wobbly’. Even amongst our family, Florence is teased about aspects of disability. However, that is separate to laughing at someone: there is a significant, and obvious, difference between familiarity and mocking. Mocking has real impacts. 


Despite the fact that disabled people are (newsflash) humans just like anyone else, and demographically significant, common ableist jokes set the disbaled apart as something strange, and deserving of mocking. 

One of the primary impacts of ableism, especially ableist jokes, is the propagation of damaging misconceptions about disabled people. The way that we regard disabled people directly impacts how we treat them, be that as fellow humans, or as patients, consumers, and employees. Therefore, misconceptions can lead to prejudice and discrimination against the disabled, personally and institutionally. So what are the most common misconceptions?


“The biggest misconception is that all disabled people are unhappy and want to change,” says Veronique. This is clearly not true, evidenced by the fact that, despite the unjust discrimation, many disabled people live happy and healthy lives. Disability does not have to define one’s life, and if given the right support, disabled people can truly live fulfilled lives.


Another major fallacy, with real world impacts, is that “disabled people don't want to be independent”. In reality, “they want, like all of us, to be in charge of their lives”. And this is crucial to understand. For a more inclusive society, we all need to listen to the disabled, and let them plan their own lives. The misconception that the disabled cannot be independent can lead to unfair legal and medical treatment, and further limit opportunities. Over half of adults with mental disabilities still live with their parents, which is of course a different decision for each individual, but often their abilities are underestimated due to misconceptions. 


Other misconceptions that Veronique listed included disabled people being seen as “brave”, that they only want to mix with other disabled people, and that disabled people are unable to be sexually active and have fulfilling relationships. And all of these have real world consequences. The idea that disabled people only want to mix with each other further alienates and segregates them, whilst the narrative of ‘brave disabilities” is patronising, especially when disabled people are called brave for simply living their lives, or being out in public.


As well as creating misconceptions, the othering of disabled people has more real world impacts. What does this othering do? It makes it acceptable to undertake more insidious forms of bullying and abuse, as well as increasing the stigma of being a visible disabled person, be that on the street, socially, or in a workplace. If we’re allowed to laugh at disabled people for being different, it’s not that many steps away from treating them worse because they are different. And examples of that are rife- although we have come far, insidious ableism is still virulent.


The idea that disabled people only want to mix with each other further alienates and segregates them, whilst the narrative of ‘brave disabilities” is patronising, especially when disabled people are called brave for simply living their lives, or being out in public.

Firstly, in the workplace. In the U.K, in 2019, 53% of disabled people participated in the workforce, compared with 82% of non-disabled people, a significant rift. The gap has closed slightly due to the growth of technology, but it is still major, and many of the disabled who are in work face discrimination. Stigmatisation is rife- however accessible a company makes its offices, if you are surrounded by mocking, or disbelief that you can work, it is hardly conducive to long-term employment. When the disabled are mocked, companies are hardly going to spend time and money working to increase accessibility, even though a diverse workforce actually leads to better innovation.


Another, even more disturbing consequence, is those who believe they can take advantage of the people that society designates as ‘other’. This can be particularly be seen in sexual assault. According to NPR, in the U.S people with intellectual disabilities are sexually assaulted at a rate seven times higher than the non-disabled. This is criminal, and a much underreported subject- despite the wave that #MeToo set off, disabled victims of sexual abuse were again left out and ignored. When we treat disabled people as other, be this through jokes or vocabulary, we are creating a society where the sexual assault of the vulnerable is permitted. By turning a blind eye to ableism, the message we give is that we do not care how the disabled are treated. That we are ambivalent in their struggle for rights. And this leads to serious bullying and discrimination.  


So how should we treat disabled people then? Easy answer: ask them. And what they say is pretty self-explanatory. 


Veronique, who has worked with countless numbers of disabled people, believes that first of all, “do not pity disabled people.” No one likes to be pitied, and pity is a shaming emotion, not an empowering or equalising one. We must also keep our assumptions in check: “don't assume that just because you can't see a disability that there isn't one”.


“Practice inclusion. Adjust your language. Don't make jokes at disabilities expense at all.” It all comes back to this: no matter how liberal you think you are, if you are still using ‘mong’ as an insult then you are prejudiced, and contributing to the devaluing of disabled lives.  “And I think we can all challenge accessibility issues”- if we notice that a space we live or work in would be inaccessible to someone with a disability, complain about it. Start a campaign. 


“Practice inclusion. Adjust your language. Don't make jokes at disabilities expense at all.”

Of course, although there is much to do, things have improved. When I asked Veronique how things had changed since Florence was born in 1994, she explained that the entire paradigm had switched.


“It was very much based on a medical model, where in order to rectify the solution of a disability, you were treated. And disabled people were seen as being unfortunate victims. Whereas now it's much more a societal model, where society adapts to and accommodates  the person”. The UK, despite some of our issues around disability, is leading the way for inclusion, and ensuring the disabled are not seen as a burden or problem.


However, it is also important, in Veronique’s words, to learn from others. Although nations in the Global South often have a poor record on disability, and institutionalise the disabled, they do “bring something to the table themselves”. Institutionalisation is obviously cruel and ineffective, but some aspects of other cultures can teach us. For example, in many Asian nations, families that don’t give their children up to orphanages have large family networks, and, Veronique argues, “there's a huge nurturing and love that often people in the West don't give.”


We need to take that into account, and should certainly not be congratulating ourselves yet on disability rights. Crucial to stopping all ableism, especially of the casual kind, says Veronique, is education.


“Society needs to be educated early on or what to say what disability is and how it affects people. And how disabled people view themselves.” For many children growing up with only rare encounters with disabled people, it is easy to fall into patterns of laughing at or fearing those different from you. A combination of visibility and education from a young age will be crucial to reducing the large percentage of ableism that is caused by ignorance, rather than cruelty. Maybe then, casual ableism will finally die. Jokes about the disabled are both a symptom and a cause of ableism, and ableism kills. As the COVID crisis has demonstrated, systematic disregard or ignorance of people’s lives can and does kill.  

Crucial to stopping all ableism, especially of the casual kind, says Veronique, is education.

Although narratives around disability have been changing for the better, the COVID crisis has set back progress. On the one hand, people have become more aware of what it feels like to be trapped at home long-term, and working from home (for privileged jobs) has rapidly become the norm, meaning working and socialising may become more accessible for the physically disabled. However, coronavirus has led to an extremely dangerous conversation around the disposability of disabled lives, propagated not only by the media, but also our own government in some cases. 


How we view disabled lives, and the reduced value our society places on them, has been laid bare by coronavirus. As news of the pandemic began to filter in, and the government decided to have a dalliance with herd immunity, the message this sent was that disabled (and elderly) lives were not worth the expense, not worth the inconvenience of treating them. Of course there was initial uncertainty over the science of COVID, and understandable uncertainties around lockdowns, but disregard for the disabled has continued throughout the crisis. When it seemed as if the NHS would be overwhelmed, discussions around triage demonstrated that we are yet to accept that disabled lives can be as fulfilling as able-bodied lives, with the seriously disabled viewed almost as collateral damage. The disabled were recommended to shelter, but if they got ill, those lives were then seen as less important. Some medical trusts, in Wales and Somerset, even issued “do not resuscitate” forms to disabled patients, including autistic patients, which mean emergency services would not be called if they contracted coronavirus and symptoms worsened. The disregard for life is staggering. As Veronique said, “you can’t put a value on a persons’ life”.


But, sadly, that is exactly what we have done. The latest figures show that over 22,000 disabled people died from coronavirus, between 2nd March and 15th May, equivalent to ⅔  of all deaths. According to the BBC, this means that working-age disabled women are more than 11 times more likely to die from coronavirus than able bodied peers, and the rate for disabled men was 6.5 times higher than non-disabled men. There is obviously a biological reality in terms of the immune system, with physically disabled perhaps more likely to contract COVID, but these figures include mental disabilities, who’s understanding and inclusion in lockdown procedures have not been considered. 


Working-age disabled women are more than 11 times more likely to die from coronavirus than able bodied peers, and the rate for disabled men was 6.5 times higher than non-disabled men.

So let this be another one of things we should have known for a long time, but are only really learning post-COVID. Ableism, be it jokes, slurs, or worse, kills. Exclusion kills. And it is our responsibility to make the changes that stop this. Subtle ableism may only be the tip of the iceberg, but it creates the mindset that allows tragedies such as this. It is our responsibility to re-educate ourselves.



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