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Ableism and how to challenge it

Discover what ableism is, where it may be present and how to challenge it.

Laura Gavin Copywriter

Wall sign saying "accessible entry"

Ableism is a form of discrimination in which people with disabilities* are thought to have less value. It’s based on assumptions about people with disabilities and what they can and can’t do. 

Ableism can take many forms:

-Inaccessible online and offline spaces, such as not having lift access to upper floors, or only accepting job applications in one format. 

-Exclusionary communication, such a lack of alternative communication methods like braille and video captions.

-Unconscious bias, including believing that people with disabilities will be less capable in the workplace.

-Using language that derives from derogatory and dated words for disability such as ‘crazy’, ‘lame’ or ‘dumb’.

-Believing people with disabilities need ’rescuing’ or imposing help on someone who doesn't want or need it.

-Unhelpful narratives about disability, including portraying people as endlessly positive and inspirational, or on the flipside, bitter or even villainous. 

How do we challenge ableism?

Ableism is all around us and often people may not know they are being ableist. So how can we recognise and challenge it?

Inclusive language  

People with disabilities are individuals, and there is not one single experience of disability. 

But the way language is used to describe people who are disabled can also be reductive or harmful. Phrases like saying someone is "confined" to a wheelchair rather than "uses" one, or that someone "suffers with" a mental health condition maintain a negative stereotype of victimhood. 

Action point> Note how a person refers to themselves and their experience of disability. If in doubt, ask people which terms they prefer.

The social model

The social model of disability says that society and the way it is set up is responsible for the barriers people face, not the disability itself. If our environments and the way we interact were more accessible for all, these barriers would be removed. 

For example, a public building without a wheelchair ramp prevents people who are disabled accessing the same services and facilities as everyone else.

Action point> Think about your workplace or a building you use regularly. Is it accessible for a person with a physical disability? If not, what could be improved? Is there anything you can do to help?

Change the narrative

The so-called ‘inspirational’ narrative is often projected onto people with disabilities if they achieve something that might be considered unremarkable in any other context. For example, being asked to a dance or getting married. 

This encourages lower expectations of people with disabilities and brushes aside genuine achievement. 

Action point> Listen to the experiences of people with disabilities without prior judgement or expectation. Expand your knowledge by following people with disabilities on social media, and seeking out disability-led podcasts and articles.

Rethink your communication

People often talk down to people with disabilities, or treat them as they would a child. There is also a tendency to speak to the person they are with instead of directly to the person themselves, or assume that person is their carer. 

Action point> Speak to people with disabilities directly and with respect. For example, don’t assume they have less understanding than you, or bend down to speak to someone who is shorter or in a wheelchair.

Be an advocate 

It’s common for people to answer for a person with a disability, rather than letting them speak for themselves. This happens at a day-to-day level and in the media, when people who don’t have a disability are interviewed on a disability issue, such as a spokesperson for a charity. 

Action point> If a person with a disability has the opportunity to share their views, support them. For example, invite speakers who are disabled to a panel on inclusive workplaces.

It’s easy to forget that people can experience places and spaces completely differently to you. But people of all abilities have a right to feel welcome and included. 

By calling out ableism, you can help make this a reality. 

A note on identity*

Some people describe themselves as a ‘disabled person’ (identity-first language). Some prefer ‘people-first’ language such as ‘person with a disability’. We are using people-first language throughout this resource for consistency, and to acknowledge that some people do not identify as disabled or prefer not to disclose their disability status. 

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