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.

16 comments:

  1. This American says "amen."

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  2. Please thank your cat for the feline view. :-D

    Have to say that not having heard the word Ableism before I immediately thought it meant discrimination against able bodied people.

    Best wishes from sunny Liverpool

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  3. I think you are grossly misinterpreting what the word "ableism" means. Ableism is discrimination based on ability or lack of ability. It does not in anyway try to hide or mask the realities of "disability". In fact many of the Disability Rights actovist (including the ones that first coined the word) in the US that use the term "ableism" often times prefer to label them selves "disabled, crip, gimp, ect." versus the more polite PC adaptations. If you want to read more about the word, check out Nothing About Us Without Us or Make Them Go Away: Clint Eastwood, Christopher Reeve and the Case Against Disability Rights

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  4. I'm American and prefer "disablism" as well because I like the emphasis to be on disability for once and because people further disable us because of lack of accommodations or attitudinal barriers. Perhaps it might be said that people who disregard us completely are "ableist" centered. What concerns me about using "disablism" is that saying something such as "Cure disablism"--the slogan I've suggested on my blog--may make people immediately think of curing a disability rather than curing the discrimination. I'm not sure as many people would get the word as should. Maybe an informal poll of abled people might help. I loved the cat post!

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  5. Joe;

    I understand *exactly* what "ableism" is *supposed* to mean.

    The point of my post was that the word has alternative readings. Unlike "disablism" which is much clearer.

    BTW: I don't consider "disabled" unPC. In fact, I consider "people with disabilities" to be a far more offensive term. You see, I'm a believer in the Social Model of Disability. This page explains why the term "people with disabilities" is not social model compatible.

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  6. Shari4:44 am

    Hi Lisy,
    I'm the woman referred to in your above post, and I would like to leave a few comments, as I feel like some of the things I said on the Ouch! thread have been misrepresented here somewhat.

    Firstly, I didn't start the thread, it was actually another Aussie. I joined in simply because I felt that an interesting thread had gone way off topic and I wanted to attempt to bring it back.

    In talking about trying to introduce non-disabled people to the reality of disability discrimination, my point was not so much that they laughed at the term, but that they laughed at the very idea, and absolutely refused to believe it could happen. I may well be wrong, but I do feel that in the face of such trenchant disbelief, the terminology used to describe it is not really the point.

    Finally, I respect your right to dislike the term ableism, but I think that castigating the Australian/American usage as "ludicrous" is unecessarily harsh. Like it or not, this is the word that is in general use in my country, and it will continue to be so.

    You have a well written blog, and I have always thought your posts on Ouch! are interesting and intelligent, so I would like to cordially agree to disagree.

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  7. [this is a horrifically long-winded comment. warnings and apologies in advance.]

    The reason I use "ableism" (and, for that matter, "audism") is actually precisely because I see it as analogous to "racism" and "sexism." (Well, to be fair, it's also because I'm American and it's the term I learned first. *grin*)

    "Ableism," the way I parse it, is discrimination based on how well someone measures up to a (culturally/contextually salient) "ideal" of ability. "Sexism," likewise, is discrimination based on how well you conform to the "ideal" of sex (and, I would argue, gender)... and so on for racism, sizeism, ageism, etc. In this sense, "-ism" is tacked onto the word representing the scale by which someone is measured and found lacking (and thus a justifiable target for discrimination).

    In contrast, tacking "-ism" to the end of the name of the group that's being discriminated against gives us things like "blackism," "fatism," "old/youngism" ('cause that one goes both ways), and ... "feminism"? Actually, the first several times I heard "disablism," I interpreted it as analogous to "feminism" (or "womanism," for that matter), and I couldn't figure out why so many progressive bloggers I otherwise liked were so opposed to it.

    I may or may not have studied the English language in greater depth than you - I'm a linguist, sure, but most of my work is on signed languages, and besides, I have no idea what your educational background is. Plus, I think the Linguistic Society of America sends someone to your house at night to take away your membership card if you call someone else's usage wrong, much less use it as evidence that they're an idiot. So no worries there. ;)

    But ultimately, I think each variant is Obviously Clearer And Vastly Superior to the people who are used to it, mostly because it's what we're all used to and we can more easily perceive the internal logic. So it's 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" just as "racism" is "discrimination based on [type or category of] race." And I guess it's equally Self-Evident Truth to you that "able-" here refers to the people doing the discriminating, the people who possess the valued amount/type/category of ability, and thus it's just as weird-sounding as "manism" or "white-ism."

    I guess my point is, there's a logically consistent explanation behind both terms that doesn't require recourse to PC or the attempted erasure of disability or disabled people. Because goodness knows, if there's any term I think is flat-out idiotic and wrong, it's "handicapable."*


    (*Now if you'll excuse me, I need to go bar my door against the LSA membership-revocation squad. ;) )

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  8. Oh, I'm so with you. I'm another American who prefers "disablism" for just the same reasons, and I would encourage others to do the same. Thank you.

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  9. Shari;

    I'm all for agreeing to disagree. However, in response to:

    "I'm the woman referred to in your above post, and I would like to leave a few comments, as I feel like some of the things I said on the Ouch! thread have been misrepresented here somewhat.

    Firstly, I didn't start the thread, it was actually another Aussie.
    "

    I was not referring to you. I was in fact referring to that other Aussie that started the thread.

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  10. "BTW: I don't consider "disabled" unPC. In fact, I consider "people with disabilities" to be a far more offensive term. You see, I'm a believer in the Social Model of Disability. This page explains why the term "people with disabilities" is not social model compatible."

    I completely agree with you. I have always preferred "disabled" over people first language. In fact a group of us had this same discussion 7 years ago when we founded NDSU .

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  11. Good point.
    listerfiend....

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  12. Jos-Anne8:32 am

    "It's only words - and words are all I have -----":

    It does seem to me that 'disablism' "sounds like" the more appropriate word. However I also feel the argument for 'ableism' is not irrelevant, in that 'disablism' is not a neutral word (needs there be a neutral word??).
    [I am still struggling with the full implication of the editorial comment.]
    As I see it (speaking here about the linguistic technicalities) 'abilityism' is in fact the neutral word, equating with 'racism', 'sexism', etc (even if it relates to the medical model?)
    [Re whether 'ableism' and 'abilityism' mean the same thing - more below].
    We can be prejudice against someone of any race, or either sex.
    'Abilityism' is in fact saying that we can be prejudice against someone at any position on the ability scale (then again, Race and Sex, is not usually considered a scale - hmmmm - more thinking required.) Whereas "disablism' does equate with 'whiteism' in that it means prejudice against a particular group (as opposed to prejudice in relation to a particular way that people are divided). See what I mean? Some people might think 'blackism'(or 'negroism' or 'asianism')is more appropriate than 'racism' because "whitism" just doesn't happen!(others would disagree.)
    So do you see the problem? - it isn't really as easy as saying
    'ableism' is wrong.

    On the other hand "able" is a different world to "ability" - if you use "able" to mean "capable in all areas", then 'ableism' does equate with 'whiteism' (or 'anglo-saxonism') as prejudice against a particular group. And the neutral word, awkward as it is, must be 'abilityism'. Proponets of 'ableism' must intend it as a short form of 'abilityism'.

    I am not really disagreeing with the "common sense" understanding of these words - keeping in mind "common sense" is saying that the reverse of "disablism" is just not an issue.
    Your argument is that 'ableism' (or 'capableism'? - still problematic) is the reverse of 'disablism' - but then there still should be a neutral word, to match 'sexism' 'raceism' 'ageism' etc..

    (In this sense)'Disablism' is not a neutral word.
    And the argument becomes "does this matter?".

    If you use 'disablism' you should probably be aware it equates with 'negroism'.

    More on 'ableism', 'abilityism' - a better nuetral word - or the limitations of language in general, -- anyone?

    Such issues with language abound, but some when they collide with emotionalism they become "Issues".

    - Jos-Anne (Australia - and never heard the word "ableism" prior to this.)
    PS. Words and emotions! In Australia "negro" is OK (it is after all the name of a race, or category of races?) but "black" is not - I understand this is the reverse in the UK?? . "Neutral" could also be a problem - in this little essay I have used "neutral" to describe words such as "sex" "age" "race" and "abilities" as opposed to the divisions within them of male/female, young/old, and multitudes of races, and so on. In another world "young" and "old", "male" and "female", "black" and "white", "negro","caucasian" and "asian" could also be considered neutral words. I think I had better stop now, my head is starting to hurt.

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  13. Jos-Anne10:50 pm

    Having discussed my last post with my daughter (the one who has studied linguistics, and is pregnant with a bi-racial child, not the one who is the mother of CJ, who is one year old and has an unknown chromosome disorder) I have realized there are some problems with some of my argument.

    I still stand by my conclusion that ‘disablism’ equates more with ‘negroism’ than ‘racism’; but ‘ableism’ and ‘abilityism’, and the overall issue, is not so simple.

    And in the end the whole situation is much more complex and is not just about the limitations of words.
    ……..
    Just a tiny part of the problem: “ism” does not necessarily mean “discrimination against.”. This is only one extension of the meaning of “ism”.
    Its more basic meaning is a “a practice” or “a state” ( - not necessarily negative, e.g. baptism, organism).
    Hence ‘dwarfism’ means “condition of being a dwarf” (Oxford English Dictionary) – which leads to totally different problems with ‘disablism’.

    Which justifies my initial feeling that ‘disablism’ is not really the correct word either – but this conclusion is not helpful to your worthwhile campaign.
    ……………..
    My last post was sincere, but perhaps a little ‘light’, but it has led me to some really hard thinking. More to follow (if anyone is interested)

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  14. Jos-Anne10:52 pm

    Having discussed my last post with my daughter (the one who has studied linguistics, and is pregnant with a bi-racial child, not the one who is the mother of CJ, who is one year old and has an unknown chromosome disorder) I have realized there are some problems with some of my argument.

    I still stand by my conclusion that ‘disablism’ equates more with ‘negroism’ than ‘racism’; but ‘ableism’ and ‘abilityism’, and the overall issue, is not so simple.

    And in the end the whole situation is much more complex and is not just about the limitations of words.
    ……..
    Just a tiny part of the problem: “ism” does not necessarily mean “discrimination against.”. This is only one extension of the meaning of “ism”.
    Its more basic meaning is a “a practice” or “a state” ( - not necessarily negative, e.g. baptism, organism).
    Hence ‘dwarfism’ means “condition of being a dwarf” (Oxford English Dictionary) – which leads to totally different problems with ‘disablism’.

    Which justifies my initial feeling that ‘disablism’ is not really the correct word either – but this conclusion is not helpful to your worthwhile campaign.
    ……………..
    My last post was sincere, but perhaps a little ‘light’, but it has led me to some really hard thinking. More to follow (if anyone is interested)

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  15. OK, this is a very late comment -- but had to post it anyway. First off, as a disabled American I'm with you on "disablism" -- it may not be the perfect word, but its meaning is more readily apparent than "ablism," which brings the focus back to the issue itself rather than to explaining the term.

    Next, as a disabled person with a disabled cat I really enjoyed reading your cat's take on things. I recognized a lot of my life and Max's in Betty's post -- right down to the claws in the lap for balance (I feel so guilty when I startle him with an "ow). I live with 2 senior cats and a wonderful service dog. Since Max's balance problems started (remnants of vestibular syndrome), I've had to lift him to the dog-proof food perch at dinner time; the non-disabled cat, Oscar, decided that I was discriminating against him by lifting his brother, so now he insists on being lifted as well and I do it. How's that for being over-PC? :)

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  16. Thank you, just as I'm googling for "which is the best word" you come up again!

    Thank you for having the articulacy to explain what I can't find the language to articulate and separating out a strong British voice on disability activism. You may well find yourself cited in a wee project of mine.

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