A guy walks into a bar sets the stage for many a bad joke. But it’s no joking matter if you are one of the 15% of people on this planet with disabilities for whom entry to the bar is, well, barred.
This is one of the most common examples how people picture discrimination against people with disabilities. And it’s still valid. Thirty years after passing the Americans with Disabilities Act, and many businesses still are not fully compliant.
Yet, the lack of a ramp for wheelchair users is not the only example of how ableism abounds in our society. It isn’t even the most insidious. It’s just the one that most of us can clearly see and understand.
In fact, although there is a general understanding that disability discrimination exists and is wrong, most people are not familiar with the concept of ableism.
Ableism is the concept that being able-bodied and able-minded is the default, it’s the norm. The valuing of this norm creates oppression against those outside the norm. The result of that oppression ranges from physical barriers in community settings to sterilization and death in the name of eugenics.
Albeism manifests in a wide variety of ways. Although most of it is unintentional, the impacts affect about 1 billion people.
We see ableism in the structural barriers we create. This isn’t just ramps for people in wheelchairs but also: appropriate lighting and contrasts for people with vision impairments; calm, quiet environments with natural lighting for people with sensory challenges; and doorknobs that are difficult to turn or doors too heavy to open.
Our medical system is full of ableism. People with disabilities are routinely denied or discouraged from seeking treatment because they are not worthy of scarce resources. Frequently, people with disabilities are left out of medical decisions about their own bodies.
Cultural ableism surrounds us as well. This includes myriad negative and condescending stereotypes of people with disabilities that appear in our media. People with disabilities are portrayed as helpless angels needing rescue or highly accomplished savants whose disability renders them ineffective in daily life. Villains frequently are disabled. If a person with a disability is the leading character, the story will center on the disability and how it either ruins their lives or the lives of people around them. All anyone wants is a cure.
It’s not surprising that after seeing people with disabilities portrayed this way (or not seeing them at all because they’ve been segregated from the “normals”), we have bought into the albeist message: Able is good, disabled is bad.
Although it surrounds us, we can fight against ableism. We can ensure that people with disabilities can participate in our businesses and social circles. We can avoid disability-bashing words, such as crazy, retarded, lame, psycho or idiot. We can treat adults with disabilities as adults, not as childlike innocents in a grown-up body.
Mostly importantly, we can respect the person with a disability instead of respecting a person regardless of their disability. Disability isn’t bad. To believe so is ableism at work.
Tara Kiene is president/CEO of Community Connections Inc.