What is ableism, anyway?

Gem smiling with cup of tea
Posted by Gem Turner

I’ve always felt a bit weird about the word ableism. It feels a bit of a non-word. It hurts more than what it sounds like when said aloud. When I was younger I thought it was a politically charged and angry word to use. But as I got older I realised how much ableism was simmering in my life. 

When people ask me what ableism is, the way I like to describe it is – an attitude, action or behaviour that leads to negative consequences for a disabled person. It’s difficult because sometimes it’s hard to describe and to pinpoint but it’s everywhere. Much like other (and intersectional) minorities have said they experience regarding “isms”.

Unfortunately some people just don’t want to understand it. 

Ableism can be a snigger from a man down the street, a pat on the head from a senior work colleague or it can be outright physical abuse from a dangerous person. No matter what the example, each one stays with you. It can build until sometimes it’s all you see or feel. 

Ableism can also be institutional and inbuilt into our society. It’s the way that cash machines and tills are made for people who are standing (albeit taller than 5ft). Or it’s the HR online training you get which tells you how to sit and stand for “better and healthier posture and lifestyle”. There are signs telling you to “be proactive! Take the stairs not the lift!”. It’s even the “accessible” door round the back behind the smelly bins because people just don’t prioritise a welcoming environment for disabled people. 

Ableism can be found in at least one part of my day. Sometimes I choose to ignore it. Sometimes I challenge it. And sometimes I’m just a bit bloody tired of it. But I thought I’d start this series to get the convo going. The only way to truly tackle this (I believe) is for everyone to understand it, recognise it and challenge it – together. So I really hope this series on ableism is useful to others. Please do share this on your socials if you find it useful and tag me in it so I can say thanks!

9 thoughts on “What is ableism, anyway?

  1. Meg O'Connell

    Such great examples and I think this helps so many people see real life examples of how Ableism can show upt.

  2. Judy

    Thanks for posting this candid and informative article on ableism and it certainly has helped me to be more aware.

  3. Ngaire Cox

    You are spot on Gem! As a disabled person I’m not righteous about attitudes and adjustments or feel a sense of entitlement. I just want acknowledgement and support to live and work with my long term conditions, and those things to support me to be the best version of myself. Not on a pedestal, and don’t bat an eyelid!

  4. vickya

    Thank you for explaining it clearly and I look forward to more posts.

  5. Nandita de Souza

    Thanks for this simple yet profound definition of ableism. Your views are critical and must be heard by non disabled people. This will help understanding, self reflection and hopefully inspire more acceptance and inclusion

    1. Maverick Fernandes

      Very enlightening the manner it is explained.
      Acceptance is the key.

  6. Grainne

    Well said but isn’t it so exhausting having to continuously point it all out. But we will. Please keep on writing it really matters.

  7. Gary Kearney

    I must explain that to an able groups regularly. I will add you name to the list of experts I quote.
    I try and work on awareness as the basis of anything I do as an activist. As I was able up until 14 years ago I am bilingual, I speak disabled and able. Significant difference and took me some tine to get up to speed, even if I was very disability aware from childhood.

  8. Penny

    I’ve just decided if I don’t stop getting so angry about the way things are for people like me I’m going to make myself mentally ill. I am so fed up with it all. As a full time wheelchair user all I ask for is a ramp and a truly accessible loo wherever I go. Hotels lie about their facilities and pubs couldn’t care less they don’t have an accessible loo. Even the Savoy Hotel in London you have to go in via the dustbins at the back. I totally salute you but I need to drop out for a while and stop fighting for the facilities that are set in law.

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