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Why and where does ableism occur? 

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Unlike sexism or racism, the word ableism is often misunderstood. You may have come across it in a blog, social media post or article but been unsure of its meaning.  

So, what is ableism, exactly? 

Ableism is discriminating against people with disabilities based on the belief that typical abilities are superior and that disabled people are both inferior and need ‘fixing’. Like racism, homophobia and sexism, ableism classifies groups of people as ‘less than’ or ‘other’ and includes harmful stereotypes, misconceptions, and generalisations. 

The history of ableism includes the inhumane treatment of disabled people in the Middle Ages and the Eugenics movement of the early 1900s and, while 21st-century ableism is often less overt, it is no less pervasive.  

Curtin staff member, Sunyal Maroo, IT Risk & Assurance Analyst, Office of the CIO, and Co-Chair of the Abilities Collective @ Curtin, talks about ableism in this insightful short video.

Why and where does ableism occur? 

Well, it’s complicated. There are many reasons why people discriminate against someone with a disability and not all of them are obvious. Reasons can include: 

  • Fear of disability
  • Uncertainty about how to behave around/interact with a person with disability
  • Lack of disability awareness
  • Learned social behaviour
  • Moral or religious beliefs
  • Unintentional or benign ableism

Ableism can be in-your-face or incredibly subtle. It shows up in the language we use, our personal relationships, in passing interactions with strangers, the in schools, workplaces and institutions we inhabit every day. Ableism can take many forms including: 

  • Assuming a person with disability wants to be ‘healed’ or can ‘overcome’ a disability
  • Suggesting a person with disability is ‘inspirational’ for handling everyday activities and routine tasks
  • Speaking over or for a person with disability
  • Assuming a person with disability is incompetent or incapable
  • Assuming a person with disability leads an unhappy, limited life
  • Using ableist language, especially after someone asks you to stop
  • Inaccessible buildings, workplaces, schools and community infrastructure
  • Not providing closed captioning services in a Teams meeting with a deaf colleague

What can I do about it? 

The good news is that we can all do something about ableism, our own, other people’s and institutional ableism. Some ways to do this are:  

  • Learning about disability — what it means and how it affects people
  • Learning about ableism, ableist stereotypes, and the history of disability rights activism
  • Listening to people with disabilities share their experiences
  • Challenging ableism as it happens, for example, by correcting a myth or stopping bullying
  • Giving people with disabilities a platform, or ‘passing the mic’ instead of speaking for them
  • Advocating for accessibility and inclusivity
  • Enacting policies or laws that counter ableism
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