30 July 2013

"Ableism"? Stop insulting me.

Historically it's been the case that the single word to describe disability-based discrimination in British English has been "disablism". North Americans have always preferred "ableism", but you didn't see it used by Brits that often. Sadly the word "ableism" is creeping further and further into British English usage. I've seen it used repeatedly by journalists and popular bloggers which validates its use; and every time I see it I feel hurt.

For much of the rest of this post to make sense you really need to go and read an article I wrote for xojane.com last November. I'll just finish this drink while you're reading that.

Back with me? OK, excellent. Let's crack on to why I find the word "ableism" insulting.

As you will have read, there are are two ways of considering disability. There's the medical/individual model in which a person with an impairment is seen as lacking in ability, and there's the social model in which a person with an impairment is considered disabled by social barriers.

The problem with the word "ableism" is that it's predicated on the medical model. The "blame it on their brain/body" individualised perspective of disability should be consigned to the history books and instead we need to focus on dealing with disabling barriers - from architectural to financial - that make life difficult/impossible for disabled people.

The word "sexism" refers to discrimination on the grounds of sex. It's discrimination that can happen to anyone of any sex whether they're male, female, intersexed, or have some other identity. Everyone has a sex and anyone can be discriminated against because of it. Though it's far rarer for men to be victims of sexism than anyone else. One might argue if a man can truly be discriminated against in a patriarchal society, but it's hypothetically possible.

The word "racism" refers to discrimination on the grounds of race. Everyone has a race and anyone can be discriminated against because of it. Again, one might argue that it's not truly possible for a white person to be a victim of racism in a society geared to the benefit of white people. But it's hypothetically, and legally, possible. There have been legal precedents set in the UK by white people bringing discrimination claims under Race Relations Act.

The idea behind the word "ableism" is that everybody has an ability level and anyone can be discriminated against because of their level of ability. In other words: If you're a person with an impairment on the receiving end of "ableism" then you have to be lacking in ability.

Imagine you and I are going to see a film together. We try to catch a bus to the cinema and the driver refuses to get the ramp out because he's an arsehole. After he shuts the door in our faces and drives off you yell at him "ableist bastard!" What you're doing there is that you're making the issue about my ability levels, rather than society's disabling barriers.

I am not intrinsically unable to travel by bus. Buses are a product of our society so making them difficult to access is a socially-created barrier. Buses could have been designed from scratch to be fully inclusive; but they weren't. It's only been in the last 15 to 20 years that we've seen any kind of wheelchair access on buses at all in the UK. As they stand now they only have one wheelchair space per bus which is still a hugely disabling design flaw for a couple who are both wheelchair users, or a parent and child who are both wheelchair users.

Then there's the fact that - with the current models of bus design - the onus is on the bus driver to not be a discriminatory dick. He has to pull up close to the kerb for the telescopic ramp to reach. He has to be willing to do his job and press the damn button to extend the telescopic ramp onto the pavement. He also has to be willing to do his job and ask any parents with buggies in the wheelchair space to fold their buggy: It's not called the "wheelchair space" for nothing. A lot of bus drivers just can't be bothered to not disable me and I'm refused entry to about 1 in every 5 buses I try to board. Which, I'll admit, is an improvement on a decade ago where the refusal rate was at least 50%.

Given that all these barriers are socially constructed; surely you can see why I'd be peeved at you shouting "ableist bastard" at the bus driver; which brings my ability levels into the equation rather than it being about his behaviour?

So I, like many other disabled Brits, use the words "disablism" and "disablist" instead. In the bus scenario above; if you shouted "disablist bastard" you would be correctly referring to him disabling me. And, of course, the fact that the design of the bus disables me too: If the bus was fully accessible without the driver having to do a thing my life would be much more simple.

In anticipation of the comments saying "but if 'ableism' puts the blame on your lack of ability, then surely you're saying that the sex and race of victims of sexism and racism is part of the problem too?"

Absolutely not. If the bus driver refuses to let me on because I am a woman then I am a victim of sexism. My sex is a matter of fact. If the bus driver refuses to let me on because I am white; then I am a victim of racism. My race is a matter of fact.

My lack of ability is not a matter of fact. As I have explained (or tried to) I am only perceived as lacking in ability by people who hold a medical/individual perspective of disability. I believe that I am disabled by social barriers (like badly designed buses, and bus drivers being dicks), not that I am intrinsically lacking ability.

Not all disablist discrimination falls under the realm of being a disabling barrier. I'm also sometimes subjected to disablist abuse from people who view my existence as a disabled person abhorrent. I get online commenters telling me that I should've been killed at birth to save taxpayers' money. That doesn't prevent me from getting on a bus or install steps at the entrance to the building I live in. But it's abuse motivated by the fact that I am disabled; therefore it is disablist abuse.

As I said in the xoJane article; it's up to people how they choose to identify. If they choose to consider themselves as a person with a disability rather than a person disabled by society; that's their prerogative. Likewise; if people choose to view themselves as lacking in ability therefore as victims of ableism then that is their choice.

However I'm an avid believer in the social model of disability. I hope I've shown how "ableism" is predicated on the medical model. (I have a thumping migraine. For all I can see to read it back off this white screen I might have just written "blah bla blah blah blah bla" over and over again.) Therefore; if you and I ever try to catch a bus together and the driver slams the door in our faces I would request that you describe me as having been on the receiving end of "disablism" not "ableism". Much like I would always ask you to describe me as a "disabled person" and never a "person with a disability."

Thank you.


  1. Question. I'm also disabled and I have a couple of issues with the points you made. Would you be open to discussing them or no?

    1. That depends: If you're the same person that's spent the last hour on Twitter telling me to check my privilege for mentioning things like the fact that there are legal precedents under the Race Relations Act determining that white people can be on the receiving end of racism, then no. It doesn't matter that legally it's rare and morally it's questionable that someone with privilege can be discriminated against. Those things are irrelevant to the fact that everyone has a race and thus, hypothetically, everyone could potentially be on the receiving end of racism.

      The comparison still holds up to the notion of "ableism" and the idea that everyone has an ability level and could hypothetically be discriminated against because of it.

      If you want to come up with improved words like "disablism" (that only affects disabled people) to replace "racism" and "sexism" to reflect that you're talking about discrimination against non-white people and non-men (including women, intersexed people, transsexuals) then I'm all ears. I'd look forward to using those words gladly. Just like I use the improved "disablism" over the word "ableism" which would cover non-disabled people too.

      But claiming that I don't understand racial and gender-based oppression because I compare "racism" and "sexism" to the etymology of the word "ableism" is a topic you've worn out.

      HOWEVER: If you're not the person that's been telling me for hours on Twitter that I don't understand sexism and racism then I'm all ears and totally up for discussing the issues you have.

  2. Before I go any further I want to make it clear that I am a strong supporter of the social model.
    One easy way to see it in action is that I am "more disabled" when I go and visit my parents than when I am at home even though my impairments don't change. The only change is that
    a) their home is not adapted to my needs and
    b) they live in a rural area where the pavements are rubbish, access to pubs etc is rubbish and public transport is non accessible.

    But going back to your bus example, what happens if you really are intrinsically unable to get on the bus? I have a muscle condition which causes purely functional impairment so wheelchair use. I also have illness which can cause quite bad symptoms and most of the time housebound. Usually I would not be able to get on the bus even if the driver put down the ramp for my wheelchair.

    The social model still holds for me to a point. For instance I still need to access health care etc. I become more disabled by my illness if my GP office refuses to do home visits, or telephone consultations etc. As another example internet shopping is another accommodation made for the fact that I am housebound by illness.

    But the point still holds that even with the adaptations in place I am still severely restricted and intrinsically unable to do what I need to. I feel that the social model should somewhere take into account impairment and that at the moment by failing to do so leaves a lot of us in limbo, not wanting to embrace the medical model, but not quite fitting in to the social model either.

  3. Thank you for your perspective. You have changed my thinking on these two terms.