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In his recent book Disability Rhetoric (Critical Perspectives on Disability), Jay Timothy Dolmage makes the following distinction between disablism and ableism:

Disablism, broadly conceived, negatively constructs both the values and the material circumstances around people with disabilities. Ableism, on the other hand, positively values and makes able-bodiedness compulsory.*


Disablism, in other words, is what leads to sympathetic treatment in the media of parents who murder their own disabled children, because of course, they were too heavy a burden to care for. And ableism is what leads to Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) – which forces autistic children mimic neorotypical people (often through electric shock and withholding food) – to be considered “therapy” rather than torture. Like the filling and bread of a sandwich, the two ideas are not exactly the same, but neither can they exist in isolation.

From here on, I’ll be focusing that second aspect of ableism as Dolmage defines it: the idea that [full ability] is, in our societies, “compulsory.” At first glance, it may seem absurd – the hyperbole of a bleeding-heart radical. After all, for many, “a sound mind in a sound body” is impossible, and can’t be enforced. But what can be (and has been) enforced is full access to the rights, privileges, and protections of human society. Come up with an arbitrary standard of abilities that “everybody” has, and you have a means to measure the quality of any person’s humanity. Once you have that, you can claim a rational, (supposedly) justifiable, reason to write laws against them.

Bigotry is the bedrock of nearly all social injustice. And ableism is the toxic sludge poisoning the ground in which human societies are rooted, allowing a wide range of oppression to flourish. And, as long as ableism remains unacknowledged and unchallenged, it also weakens our fight against it.

There are two main misconceptions about bigotry that get in the way of people recognizing both the reality of ableism and the harm it causes.

The first is that bigotry is nothing more than a prejudiced, mistaken idea about someone, based on their perceived identity (“All white people love mayonnaise”). But in actuality, bigotry is the systematic combination of belief and policy used in order to enforce the status quo for the privileged classes and deny others their rights. No white person has ever been denied a job because of their preferred condiments. On the other hand, the belief that women are both more irrational, and less able to control their impulses than men, led to policies allowing banks to deny women the right to open their own checking account without their fathers’ or husbands’ permission (source).

The second misconception is that, in order to be “bigoted,” an idea must be false (“All black people are less intelligent than whites”). This forces marginalized people to spend their time debunking lies, focusing all our energies on trying to prove we’re smarter, stronger, and more capable than our oppressors say we are (“Do twice as much, twice as well, for none of the credit”), instead of focusing our attention on changing the actual laws and policies that are used against us.

And it’s this second misconception that makes ableism – the idea that a measure of a person’s ability is a valid reason to deny the value of a person’s humanity – that makes it such an insidious force against our fight for universal justice. Because disability exists in every community. Some women are frail. Some blacks are intellectually disabled. And so these are the people shunned by their own communities (and it’s often our elders who bear the worst of this). Ableism allows our oppressors to “Divide and conquer.” And because every person who’s alive is at risk of becoming disabled, it plants the seed of doubt in the back of the mind: “What if ‘they’ are right – what if I am too weak, or not smart enough?” undermining the strength of our convictions.

But if we can, collectively, recognize ableism for the false and arbitrary standard that it is, then bigotry will no longer have the power to distract and divide us:

Whether or not I measure up to your standards is irrelevant. I do not need to be as strong, or as smart, as you claim I must be I am still a human being. And my life matters. My humanity is valid. And I – we – deserve justice.

The "*-Ism" Tree

[Image description: A black and white tabloid sized poster in the style of an educational diagram, showing a tree and its root system, combined with text.

At the bedrock level: "BIGOTRY: Beliefs and policies which work to exclude people from full membership in human society."

In the root system: "ABLEISM: Judging the value of a person's humanity on the basis of ability."

The trunk has two forks; the left-hand fork is labeled "RACISM:" and leads to an example racist belief in its cluster of leaves: "Blacks are Less Intelligent than Whites, but they are More Athletic"

The right-hand fork is labeled "SEXISM:" and leads to two clusters of leaves. The main cluster reads: "Women are Weaker, & Less Rational than Men;" the secondary cluster reads: "Gays are effeminate. Lesbians are emasculating."

The top cluster of leaves centered between these two branches, with a freely curving arrow pointing down to each half, reads: "Claims about Ability used to Pass Judgment on People's Humanity (This is ABLEISM)"

Description ends.]



*(Kindle Locations 504-506). Syracuse University Press. Kindle Edition (copyright 2014)

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