The World Health Organization reports that 1.3 billion people, or 16 percent of the world’s population, experience significant disability. In 2019, the United States Census Bureau found that 41.1 million Americans had disabilities, or about 13 percent of the noninstitutionalized civilians.
Disabilities are more prevalent among older Americans, affecting half of Americans age 75 and older and a quarter of those 65 to 74 years old. Types of disabilities include mobility, cognitive, hearing, and visual impairments.
What Is Ableism?
In the United States and globally, individuals with disabilities experience discrimination known as ableism. Ableism perpetuates negative ideas about disability, implying that all affected must be “cured” to conform to society. Per the University of Washington, ableism can occur between individuals, institutions, people, and organizations and as part of societal policies and expectations.
Examples of Ableism
Ableism can take many forms, including the following:
- Inaccessible buildings. For instance, a building that lacks braille on signs or an accessible alternative to stairs, such as a ramp or elevator, can be difficult to navigate for individuals with mobility or visual impairments.
- Institutionalizing adults and children with disabilities. Excluding individuals with disabilities from communities constitutes discrimination under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), according to the landmark Supreme Court decision Olmstead v. L.C.
- Failure to make reasonable accommodations. The ADA requires that employers allow reasonable accommodations for employees with qualifying disabilities to perform their jobs. An employer’s refusal to make an accommodation often stems from ableism.
- Refusal of housing. The Fair Housing Act prohibits housing discrimination against people with disabilities. Landlords must accommodate service dogs and emotional support animals, even if there is a no-pet policy.
- Comments and beliefs. Ableism can manifest through comments and ideas. For example, finding an adult “inspiring” because of a disability or likening them to a child reflects ableist beliefs.
Supporting People With Disabilities
Virtually everyone knows someone – whether family, friends, loved ones, coworkers, or neighbors – with some form of disability. Even if you do not have a disability, you could experience a disability in the future.
July marks Disability Pride Month, which commemorates the enactment of the ADA. To be an ally to people with disabilities, you can take steps to combat ableism every month of the year.
Learn – Educating yourself about ableism and its effects can help you become a better advocate and ally. Listen to the lived experiences of individuals. Familiarize yourself with the laws protecting the rights of people with disabilities, such as the ADA and the Fair Housing Act. An excellent resource for learning more is the book Demystifying Disability: What to Know, What to Say, and How to Be an Ally by Emily Ladau.
Use appropriate language – How you describe and refer to a person’s disability should reflect sensitivity to a person’s preferences.
Many people in the disability community prefer person-first language. For instance, the National for Community and Justice advises using the phrase “people with disabilities” rather than “disabled people” to recognize that the person comes before the disability.
While person-first language is often recommended, some individuals may prefer identity-first language – for example, members of the Deaf community. According to Accessibility.com, other people may prefer the term “disabled person” because failing to recognize disability makes it seem as though being disabled is shameful.
It is best to ask someone what language they prefer and stay updated as language evolves.
Respect autonomy – Recognize and respect the autonomy of individuals with disabilities.
Particularly if a close loved one has a disability, you may feel inclined to step in and help them handle their affairs. The disabled person’s preferences should take precedence. Even if you are acting as their legal representative, you must consider their wishes and support your loved one’s independence.
Communicate directly – Sometimes, those working with or serving people with disabilities choose to speak to the person’s family member or aide rather than the individual themselves. Combating ableism requires treating all people with dignity and respect, including addressing individuals directly.
For instance, a doctor whose patient is hard of hearing should address the patient rather than speaking only to a family member who may also be attending the appointment.
In continuing to learn about disability discrimination and supporting those whom it affects, you can help push back against ableism.