01 May 2008

Disablism Vs. Ableism

We grow, we evolve, our thought processes change. Since writing this post in 2008 (this emboldened intro was written in 2014) I've thought more about quite why the term "ableism" bothers me so. In fact, one of the comments on this post was important in developing my own chain of thought. If you're looking for an exploration of some of the faults with the term "ableism" then you'll find this post written in 2013 to be far better thought out.

It's BADD again. I don't mean that things are bad again. Although today kinda has been -- I should have been at a cult film conference, instead I spent the day sitting at home waiting for an engineer from Virgin to come and fix my TV and phone.

Blogging Against Disablism Day has come round again. I didn't participate last year, so my last BADD entry was in 2006.

There are a lot of things I hate; doing dishes, mornings, people with gross fungal toenails who wear sandals (they make me feel sick -- seriously -- treat them or hide them), the cat peeing in my bed, disablism (obviously), and there is a word I really hate: Ableism.

Those of you who don't know, "ableism" is the American/Australian word for "disablism". And I think it's ludicrous.

For one thing it reminds me of those ridiculously over-PC words like "handicapable" or "differently abled", which are only used by people who are trying to pretend that disability doesn't exist.

Secondly, it's unclear what it actually means. If "disablism" is discriminating against people for being disabled, surely "ableism" is discriminating against people for being able? In season three, episode 18 of My Name Is Earl, Earl and Randy go into a "wheelchair bar". In this bar there are no chairs, so it's obviously discriminating against people who are able to walk thus haven't brought their own seat with them. That's what I would call "ableism". In reality, in the UK it is illegal to discriminate against someone for being disabled, but it is legal to discriminate against someone for not being disabled. So for example, it is legal to advertise a job as being for disabled applicants only. This I would also call "ableism" (though I don't think this is wrong).

Someone on an Internet message board I use started a discussion on ableism. She was Australian, and angered that she had tried to introduce a non-disabled person to the concept of ableism. The non-disabled person laughed at such a ludicrous term.

Obviously I did too, because it's a silly word. But this person laughed, because she didn't believe that such a thing existed. I wonder if she would have still laughed if Australians used the more accurately descriptive word "disablism". On that thread several people mentioned that they struggle to get non-disabled people to understand concepts of ableism. I never have any trouble getting people to understand disablism; could this be because of the language I use?

I believe that calling disablism "ableism" is akin to calling racism "whiteism". I've heard some people disagree, and argue that grammatically "ableism" is more correct. I fail to see their point. If "racism" is discrimination on the grounds of race, surely it is logical that the word for discrimination on the grounds of disability would be "disablism"? I shall await the barrage of comments from people who have studied the English language in greater depth than me pointing out why I'm an idiot.

So my appeal for this Blogging Against Disablism Day is for us all to call disablism what it really is. If we are using a word like "ableism" which tries to pretend that disability doesn't exist, how can we fight against discrimination on the basis of disability? If we're trying to pretend that disability doesn't exist, then how can discrimination on the basis of it exist? "Sexism", "racism" and "homophobia" are used by English speakers the whole world over. How are we supposed to expect non-disableds to fully understand concepts of disablism if we can't even come up with a unified word for it?

Say it with me people: Diss-A-Buh-Lism. Then go and read what my cat had to say for BADD.

Edit May 8th: Thanks for all the comments on this post. I was especially interested by the thoughtful comment by maudite entendante in which she said:

Highly Obvious to me that the "abl-" in "ableism" is just the prefix form of "ability" (because, really, "abilityism" just isn't a possible English word), and it means "discrimination based on [amount or type or category of] ability"

Looking at the term "ableism" in that context makes it clear that "ableism" is derived from the medical model of disability - the idea that a disability is something we have, that we are disabled by a lack of ability.

I'm a believer in the social model of disability, the idea that we are disabled by barriers which prevent us from living as full and equal citizens.

The term "disablism" doesn't have such obvious medical model roots. Another reason why I think this term is superior.