Disability Rights are Civil Rights: The Form of Discrimination We're Apparently All Okay With

A couple of weeks ago, a letter to the editor showed up in my local paper making the argument that taxpayer dollars should not be spent on educating children with disabilities, but should instead be invested those dollars in the “best and brightest” students. As you can imagine, I was outraged. I was outraged for all of the obvious reasons- it’s ableist, it presumes that children with disabilities are less valuable and incapable of learning, and it’s a misrepresentation of what those taxpayer dollars actually do. But I was also outraged for a less obvious reason- why in the world did the Chattanooga Times Free Press give this person a platform?

We live in an era where it’s less acceptable to be openly racist, homophobic, etc than ever in modern American history. We still have a long way to go in those areas, don’t get me wrong, but people are WAY more likely to be called out for discriminating against someone based on their race or sexuality than they are to be called out for discriminating against someone for their disability status. If this lady had written a letter suggesting that we not use taxpayer dollars to educate minority students, but instead use that money to “invest” in white kids, I have a hard time believing that the paper would have published her letter. And if they had, I’d like to think that readers would be appalled and would be using their energy to call her and the paper out. Yet, very few people seem to be offended when she makes essentially the same argument about children with disabilities. Why is that? It’s just as gross as a racist or homophobic stance would be, yet people seem okay with discrimination against people with disabilities.

If you are outraged when you see racism or homophobia or other forms of discrimination, but do not find yourself called to action when you see discrimination against people with disabilities, I would urge you to do some serious soul searching. I don’t want to hear about what a warrior for social justice you are if you are not compelled to action on behalf of the most vulnerable people in our community. Until we start taking ableism as seriously as we take the other “isms”, we will continue to be a society that is based on inequality and we will continue to perpetuate systems that value one group of people more than others. Sitting back and doing/saying nothing is not okay. Your inaction helps uphold discriminatory systems and practices. In failing to call for change or hold people/systems accountable for their ableism, we are saying that we are okay with what they are doing. It is not okay. Stop accepting and tolerating ableism. Do better.

So what can you do?

  • Do some self reflection as to why you are okay with discrimination against people with disabilities. Just like the other “isms” a good starting point is to reflect on how your own actions (or inaction) have contributed to the problem.

  • Educate yourself about the many forms of discrimination against people with disabilities.

    • Then share what you know and learn with others.

  • Hold people, companies, and systems accountable when you see this form of discrimination.

  • Raise awareness & call ableism out when you see it. Tell people that these views are not okay.

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You are an Ableist and So Am I

If somebody called you a racist or a sexist, you'd probably get defensive. We know it's not okay to be perceived as those things and we feel ashamed when our actions are perceived as contributing to those systems. But if I called you an ableist would you have the same level of defensiveness? My guess is that you'd have no idea what I was even talking about. Ableism is discrimination or prejudice against people with disabilities. It's often characterized by a belief that people with disabilities are "inferior", that their minds and bodies are a "broken" version of normal, and that they are unable to fully participate in society. Ableism is pervasive in our culture and very few people seem to be aware of it or willing to do anything about it. But we can (and should!) change that. 

Like most of the "isms", ableism can be intentional or unintentional. It can mean not hiring the person with the disability because they are perceived to be "less capable". It can be the denial of access to spaces and experiences that able bodied people have ready access to. It can be failing to recognize the ways in which our systems deny people with disabilities access, or the opposite...underestimating their abilities. It plays out a million different ways every single day and keeps people with disabilities from being able to fully participate in society. 

I recently attended a meeting at a local organization. It was on the basement level of a building that did not have an elevator. What if I was unable to navigate stairs? Would I have been excluded from participating? Would they have moved the meeting? Would I have even felt comfortable asking for the accommodation? Did anyone planning the meeting stop to think "is this accessible to everyone"? I am picking on this one organization, but this happens all the time. Events are planned without consideration for whether they are accessible to folks with disabilities- physical, mental, or otherwise.

Those of us who do not have disabilities take for granted these challenges because we don't have to think about them. It's sort of like white people being unaware of their racial privilege. We often don't realize how our whiteness opens particular doors for us or what unique challenges people of color deal with in navigating the world. The same could be said for "able" people. We often fail to recognize how the world caters to "able" people or consider the unique challenges those with disabilities face. The good news is, we can do something about it. 

Here are just a few things you can do today to start shifting your thinking and recognize the ways you contribute to systems that are ableist:

  • Pay attention to how you think about and interact with people with disabilities. Do you treat them differently than you do "typical" people? Why? Sometimes it's appropriate but sometimes it isn't. Be mindful about those interactions.
  • Think about the language you use. Do you say things like "I don't know how you do it" to people raising kids with disabilities? Don't...especially in front of the kids. It sounds like you are saying our kids are a burden that you couldn't imagine dealing with. My son isn't broken and I don't "deal" with him. He lights up my world. It's not okay to speak as if somebody else's life is insufferable. 
  • Check your assumption that people want to be "typical". For plenty of people with disabilities, their disability is part of their identity and they can't imagine life any other way. Just because they have a a disability doesn't necessarily mean they long to be "healed" or that they spend a significant amount of time wishing their life was different. It's quite possible they are fulfilled and content with their life just as it is. 

What are some ways you are perpetuating ableism and how can you shift you thinking, words, and actions to be more inclusive?