Ableism is a difficult concept to be concise about. I think that if one were to try and define it, a long document or a manual with several clauses would be best, perhaps in the format of the DSM-V, or maybe a law or an act like the ADA. I think several chapters would be necessary, because there are many types of it, just as there are many types of disability.
Ableism is a discriminatory viewpoint that takes on many forms, and is directed at each type of disability in unique ways, and when disabilities overlap, Ableism also overlaps.
Ableism is the belief that a disabled person is somehow lesser than others, need not be considered at all, or is to be felt sorry for and made to fit into dominant systems of hierarchy as much as possible.
The dominant person, considered medically and socially “normal” in American society, is upheld as the model in this system. This is a person whose body and mind/brain does not have what are considered impairments in medical and social models of health and ability. Examples of “impairment” are things such as cerebral palsy, schizophrenia, deafness, blindness, autism, or levels of intelligence that are considered less than the average.
A person who is considered healthy and able bodied is one who fits a certain ideal of weight and physical/mental ability. The definition of health and ability has been, over the centuries, put into place by those who have been best able to participate and benefit from defining ability this way.
A person who is able-bodied can participate in the built world, the educational systems, the medical systems, the family and social systems, and in the dominant perception of “reality” and benefit from those systems. A disabled person struggles in each of these systems in different ways.
The best way for me to try to understand and define Ableism is to speak from my experience as a deaf, mentally ill and occasionally mobility-impaired person. For this, however, I will focus on my hearing “loss”.
When teachers and audiologists discovered that my hearing was at levels much lower than most other children’s, it was quickly decided that this was a problem to be corrected. The idea that deafness could be beneficial to me was never considered. There was a mad rush to get me fitted with hearing aids as quickly as possible, to reassure me that I was “normal”, to encourage me to hide my hearing aids under my hair and to get me started in speech therapy. I remember my parents being very frightened during this time. I was 5 years old. Although I didn’t feel any different, suddenly I was being defined as “impaired”. I had a hearing “loss”, a speech “impediment”, I needed to see a “pathologist”, and much of my childhood was spent going to audiologists and looking at plastic models of the perfect and healthy human ear, which I did not possess, and undergoing painful hearing tests every six months. Although I had a strong self-image as a young child, I was constantly, constantly reminded that I was impaired and that was a bad thing until I finally began to internalize it.
The adults in my life, the teachers, doctors and so on, never thought I should learn sign language, because doing so would be, in their opinion, nothing but a huge hindrance to me. Being deaf was a terrible thing, and I needed to be as far away as possible from deaf culture and sign language. Instead, I was made to take speech pathology for years, I was expected to listen very hard and use my hearing aids to hear other people. This was utterly exhausting, but I didn’t know there was any other option or type of life available.
When I was 14, my high school offered a sign language class taught by a deaf teacher. Of course I signed up for it. The teacher, when she learned I was hearing impaired, gave me a huge hug, and with that I was welcomed into deaf culture. I will always remember this. I never had considered myself deaf before. I remember the incredible relief I felt when I was able to finally communicate without straining. It was so liberating, and I learned ASL immediately. It came so naturally to me. I was just shocked and hurt that this whole time there had been a language that I could use without straining and struggling and feeling embarrassed.
The fact that I was not taught ASL is ableism. That I was not introduced to other deaf children or deaf culture was ableism. That I was told over and over again that I was impaired is ableism. When deaf children are forced to speak and try to hear and not taught sign language, they fall behind in school. This is ableism. The amount of deaf children and deaf people that I met growing up was almost none. My whole time in undergrad at Hunter College, I never encountered anyone who used sign language. I have never met another deaf person in any of my places of employment. You would think that deaf people do not exist at all. We exist. We are kept from participating in things like public schools, colleges and employment because of ableism. Deaf people are not inherently stupid, yet on average, we do not progress beyond the fourth grade. I was lucky because I had enough “usable hearing” to be able to talk and hear more than other deaf people. This means I can hear certain sounds that are used in spoken English language. I was also lucky for many other reasons and was able to make it to college. The amount of struggle it has taken to just be in a master’s program is unbelievable and I am amazed to even be here. Of course, I am often reminded that I am older than others and could have gotten a master’s ages ago. This is ableism. Able-bodied people are never going to understand the struggle that disabled people face without listening to them. The able bodied need to stop trying to define people like myself. I don’t need those definitions. I don’t need to be told what I can and can’t do by able-bodied people.