Ableism in the USA

Social IssuesCulture

  • Author Robin Akins
  • Published December 4, 2023
  • Word count 1,288

Estimates published by the world bank report that approximately one billion people experience some form of disability worldwide. This number amounts to 15% of the global population. In the USA, 61 million people - or 1-in-4 adults - live with a disability. Many of these disabled are subjected to ableism.

Despite these percentages, discrimination against people with disabilities, or ableism, is present across several areas of society. Ableism exists on several levels - from systematic to direct discrimination episodes. While in some cases discrimination based on disability is immediately visible, some more indirect actions are overlooked but are equally damaging.

Building an anti-ableism attitude and raising awareness is not everything you can do to fight this type of discrimination. However, they are useful starting points. In the guide below, you will discover more about ableism, how to recognize it in everyday life, and how to fight it.

What Is Ableism? An Overview

Ableism is defined as a type of conscious or unconscious discrimination against people with disabilities. It is based on social prejudice and a harmful belief system that typical abilities are superior. Ableism is certainly not a new concept, yet only in recent years has it been studied and actively fought.

The roots of ableism can be traced back centuries but modern ableism is fuelled by detrimental assumptions. A major assumption is that people with disabilities need to be “fixed” and that their disability defines them.

Ableism appears in many forms and on different social levels. The most common examples are disability stereotypes, misconceptions, and generalization. Ableism and disablism can be direct, indirect, or systematic.

Direct ableism - a conscious and oppressive action against someone with a disability.

Indirect ableism - also known as ignorant ableism, this type of disability discrimination might be unconscious and derives from actions that are not intended to cause harm.

Systemic ableism - based on centuries of prejudice, stereotypes, and discrimination. Systemic ableism translates into all the unconscious and conscious oppressive actions, thoughts, language, and lack of action.

Systemic discrimination heavily impacts social structure, belief systems, policies, and laws. This kind of ableism significantly influences the lives and outcomes of people with disabilities, and it is seen in many aspects of our culture. For example, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2020, only 17.9% of people with disabilities were employed - which is in stark contrast to the 61% employment rate for people without disabilities.

Origins of the Term

Ableism is not a new type of discrimination - and it can only be found on a systematic viewpoint because this detrimental belief system has been prevalent in society for centuries. At the same time, modern ableism is considered a newer concept, and the term “ableism” was only coined in the 1990s from able (adj.) + -ism. In 1991, ableism was defined as the "bias against the physically challenged and differently-abled by the temporarily abled”.

This definition has changed through the years, but it functions as the starting point for societal improvements, equal rights movements, and important changes to laws and policies.

The History of Ableism

As we have seen, the modern concept of ableism only emerged during the 70s and 80s. Yet no term for it was coined until the 1990s. Yet, the history of ableism is long, and examples of discrimination against people with disabilities can be found across history, often stemming from the Medical Model.

Some examples of ableism in history include:

Segregation of students with disabilities

The use of seclusion and restraint techniques to control people with disabilities

Forced institutionalization of adults and children with disabilities

Lack of accessibility features in building design

Inaccessible facilities and websites

The Eugenic Movement

The Nazi persecution and mass murder of people with disabilities

Modern Ableism: The State of Disability Discrimination and Stereotypes in the USA

History is undeniably filled with examples of ableism and oppression of individuals with disabilities. A better understanding of the consequences of this movement encourages people to condemn and fight discriminatory actions. Even so, the path towards equality is still long and challenging.

Some stats that picture a horrifying snapshot include:

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) receives over 6,000 yearly job bias claims.

Under 18% of people with disabilities were employed in 2020

Over 47% of people with disabilities live below the poverty line

People with disabilities are almost twice as likely to fall victim to violent crime

At the same time, governments around the world have generated efforts to provide disabled people with opportunities, equality, and legal support. In the US, both the EEOC and the American Disability Act (ADA) significantly help people with disabilities fight for justice and representation.

What Does Ableism Look Like?

As we have seen, ableism takes many forms. Some of the immediately visible discriminatory actions and systems include:

Choosing inaccessible venues or office buildings

Playing with someone’s mobility device

Creating a movie or video without audio description and captioning

Using the facilities reserved for people with disabilities, such as accessible bathrooms and parking spaces.

Asking invasive questions and doubting a disclosed disability

While these actions are openly offensive, there are also microaggressions that can be verbal or behavioral and extremely frequent. In particular, this takes the form of phrases, insults, or jokes containing ableist language.

Ableist Language To Avoid

To understand ableist language, it is important to look at where some of the terms and words we tend to use in everyday conversations originate. Ableist language - or a type of language that is offensive to people with disabilities, derogatory, negative, or abusive - is often used alongside discriminatory actions.

These words include terms that were used to describe clinical conditions. While they are now considered offensive, they are still widely spread. Such words include “retard”, “idiot”, “moron”, or “crazy”. While these words are offensive in any context, other phrases, such as “blindly following advice” or “being bipolar or OCD” can be offensive when used in the wrong context.

Remember that even if you are using some of these words with good intentions, your intentions cannot erase the historical meaning of the word.

The Impact of Ableism on People With Disabilities

Ableism, the “able privilege”, and various disability stereotypes still affect people with disabilities. There are many examples of the impact of systematic, direct, and indirect discrimination against people with disabilities. These include the fact that only around 30% of New York City subways are accessible by wheelchair users and a glaring lack of suitable learning support to the disabled.

In some cases, people that develop a disability later on in life and have before taken part in the ableist belief system, might find it difficult to adapt to the new chapter of their lives.

The Fight Against Ableism: How Is Combated and What You Can Do

Undoubtedly, attitude and awareness are essential to fight ableism, but there is much more to it. Getting in touch with governmental bodies such as CPCAA, EEOC, and ADA, allows you to find communitarian and governmental support. Additionally, you can take the following action to actively fight ableism:

Continue to learn about this type of discrimination and what’s being done to prevent it

Don’t doubt of a disability and don’t accuse someone of “faking” a disability

Listen to what needs a person has, but don’t assume they have a certain need.

Don’t touch a person with a disability or their devices without their consent

Don’t ask invasive questions

Talk about disability with those around you

Incorporate accessibility into your building design, event planning, website design, and products.

There are many other actions you can take to support people with disabilities. Start by learning more about what you can do and ensuring that their voice is heard - and don’t ignore a discriminatory action if you witness one.

Robin Akins is the founder of Cogentica, LLC, a disability advocacy and information site founded in 2015. Dr. Akins is a quantitative psychologist with over 40 years of experience in business, government, and education with substantial teaching experience at the college level. He received his doctorate at Temple University in 1992.

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