Ableism and Its Gray Area

Here’s a skimming of one of my struggles with the concept of ableism. I guess this would qualify as a moderate viewpoint, though a more social-justice type stance can be found here. Maybe just go read that, it’s kinder.

Ableism has long struggled to pull its weight (ha) as an “ism,” being under-acknowledged and under-discussed, despite all its social-justice potential. In fact, the term is so young that many people still don’t know what it actually means—I’d never even heard the term til I was 24, and I’ve had a disability since always. Webster’s defines it rather simply:

“Discrimination or prejudice against people with disabilities.”

Outside the pages of a dictionary, ableism is so much more than discrimination or prejudice against PwD. It is layered, it is sneaky, it is accidental and disguised. It’s intentional and (supposedly) justified. And there are many reasons why it keeps showing up, one of which I’ll ramble about for a few paragraphs below.

We Suck at Defining Ableism

Sure, ableism has made its way to the dictionary presently, but it wasn’t even recognized as a concept until 1981 (Link is American). You can imagine then, that people in high places, as well as all your everyday joes, are pretty fuzzy about what constitutes ableism. In a sentence, the grayish uncertainty around the topic is generally something like: “Is this prejudice against disabled people, or is it just recognizing a reality?”

Examples of this confusion include:

  1. Places of employment, every time they wonder if hiring a disabled person is actually a good idea, when an ablebodied person can do it without the physical inconveniences that come with disability.

Is this ableist, or is this business? Accommodations are expensive. Often, living with a disability is expensive, and yet disabled people are generally poor (in assets, anyway. The government might give you a pretty sweet life if you fit their requirements and throw your ambitions to be a real person down the toilet).

  1. Doctors, when they scratch their heads over “quality of life,” questioning whether or not to amputate a person’s sickly leg.

Is it ableist that the doctor’s not totally down with chopping off a leg? After all, that’s implying that living with a disability is negative, isn’t it?

  1. Helpings someone with a disability do something faster. Because disability often means that your body doesn’t do time restraints. An activity that takes 5 minutes one day can take 15 the next, depending on many factors (think: stress level, pain level, awkward angles, tiredness, illness.) The same activity can take half a second when a non-disabled person swoops in and abilities all over the place. Is it ableist to do something for or with a disabled person, in the interest of time-management? In doing so, the disabled person (probably) receives the message that their method is slow/inadequate.

The uncertainty I’m describing occurs because disability is not strictly seen as a social construct. It’s my personal belief that our failure to paint disability as something that is socially make believe, holds us back in social progression. To me, the first step in moving beyond prejudice of any kind is to throw that stereotype/myth on its face and stomp on it, the way women did when they defied the belief that all they’re good for is baby-making.  Women went and got jobs, excelled at them, and hence made it (slowly) into the workforce. And now, the idea that women only exist to reproduce is widely accepted as a social construct, even if it’s still (sadly) enforced more subtlety.

The same first step cannot be taken for disability, much of it is not socially constructed (fight me on this, as I know much of disability ‘discourse’ is garbage, but disability as inherently negative is difficult to disagree with, on a basic level). Employers tell us that we’re costly, and we know in our hearts that we are. Doctors fight for optimal health of their patient, and we agree that full ability is easier. People help us on the regular, and we know that we need it. Disability and its associated negative views are not made-up, they are sometimes based in truth.

Some Bit About How Oppression Works and Continues

I blame Darwin and Survival of the Fittest (and our begotten culture) for a chunk of our social issues, including disability. This concept was/is used as foundation to justify many different oppressions, and many nodded our heads solemnly, saying “If [the oppressed person] deserved to live/thrive/succeed, they would’ve figured their way out of the adversity.” On the flip-side of the same coin, we collectively decided that those that couldn’t “rise above”” their disadvantage, were not deserving to do so. In this way, the measure is both the culprit and the judge of the person’s oppressed circumstance.

Consciously or not, it’s with Darwin’s theory in mind that we often view disability. If people with disabilities were meant to be active members of society, they would be. They’d work with what they have to make the best of their situations. And the most deserving of them would go the furthest (I guess I’m just describing Social Darwinism?). I could take this deeper and talk about our methods of measuring success, but nah, we’re getting off track, kids.

Conclusion/ Plea for New Ideas

I’d love to be wrong about all of this. I want ableism to be a complete fabrication, or for the evaporation of “Disabled but [insert positive trait here]” narratives around disabled existence. I want for ableism to be thrown in the trash, but doing so might also be throwing away reality. Suggestions are welcome.



  1. I’ve been disabled since 1972. Yes, this makes me kind of old. Before ADA (I hate it), I could get a job at anything I was capable of doing. There were even tax incentives for hiring someone like me. Now that the incentives are gone, why should a business hire someone who is disabled when they can get someone able-bodied at the same rate of pay? The health insurance doesn’t go up. The company insurance doesn’t go up. Believe me, it’s purely an economic decision. With doctors, they want you to be as able-bodied as possible. After all, it makes they look like God. Most people who know me, know to ask if I need help before they get involved. Strangers are just trying to be kind. We should be pushing them away. Instead, we should be educating them.

    There are oppressions. I don’t doubt that for a second. Still, don’t you think that we should take some responsibility for banishing what is wrong or bad. The able-bodied, for the most part, really don’t know what is wrong or bad because it doesn’t slap them in the face every day.

    • Hey Glynis,
      Great to hear from you. I agree with you that we should indeed take some responsibility for educating others, its part of our predicament. I guess my question is more “How deep does ableism run?” What should I feel obligated to explain, and what should be my personal information, to keep private?
      As you might have also experienced, I spent my early years with disability explaining myself away to every person that asked. Every question about disabiltiy is not ableist, and yet I often feel that the entitlement conveyed by strangers makes ableism tangible. Perhaps it is only a personal struggle.

      Your insights about doctors make perfect sense. Employment, ah, thats a sad issue altogether, though things are sightly different here in Canada.

      Where do you think we, as PwD, should draw the line when it comes to explaining disability?

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