I understand ableism as a system that oppresses individuals and communities based on assumed physical and cognitive abilities. These widely held assumptions are based on perceived deviations from taken-for-granted physical and cognitive norms. Ableism is more than individual acts of discrimination against people with disabilities; it is built into the structures of society. Special education classrooms, short busses, and side doors with ramps, for example, send messages to people from a young age about how difference is understood and (de)valued in Western society. These messages, in turn, shape people’s thinking and subsequent behavior toward people with disabilities and people’s understanding of themselves as abled/disabled.
Importantly, ableism intersects with other oppressive systems such as white supremacy, patriarchy, colonialism, imperialism, and capitalism and has shifted as dominant beliefs regarding ability and normality have shifted over time. Racialized portrayals of people as intellectually inferior or mentally abnormal/unhealthy, for instance, have been historically drawn on to justify colonial conquests. Perceptions of disability are always already bound up with ideas about race, gender, sexuality, and social and economic value. The social significance of ableism undoubtedly differs for different folks and across cultures. Within the United States, for example, the ruling ideology of individualism has major implications for people with disabilities. Autonomy and independence, concepts themselves deeply rooted in liberal humanism, are constantly reaffirmed as inherently valuable and desirable. These concepts are rarely called into question. Subsequently, within Western culture, conceptions of people with disabilities as deficient, flawed, or incomplete are normalized and naturalized. Notions of humans as autonomous, singular, and bounded entities, an idea deeply ingrained in Western culture, fuel ableism and hinder understandings of all people as fundamentally interdependent and necessarily bound up in one another.
While many people don’t have the privilege of choosing to ignore how ableism and ableist assumptions perpetually shape their interactions and fuel their marginalization, others can disregard the fact that they reap social and economic benefits through ableism at the expense of others. That being said, and without homogenizing the way in which ableism differentially impacts people’s lives, I think that a system that ranks and values people in relation to a hegemonic conception of physical and cognitive (including both intellectual and psychological) normality is ultimately deleterious for all.