Nearly all the big US based blogs on line talk about ableism being something experienced by persons with disabilities because we live in a society where being able-bodied gives you a level of privilege/being a person with a disability means you experience oppression specific to that.
Many of us in the UK who fight for disabled peoples rights don't use that language. We talk about disablism the oppression faced by disabled people, because society is set up to primarily cater to the needs of non-disabled people.
Which set of language is the best to use? Is there even a difference? Are those in the UK backwards?
I have opinions on this so I'm going to share them (it's what blogs are for after all). You can make up your own mind. All I would ask is that you have a think about what the words mean, the sentiment attached to them and if you think they are contributing to make the world a more equal place for everyone.
There are two big models of disability which state the following;
- The Medical Model - That people are disabled by impairments* e.g. Jean's amputation is why she can't get into all the shops she wants to or, David's Downs Syndrome is why he struggles to find work. In feminist terms it's like saying women don't have equality because their biology is the problem.
- The Social Model - That people with impairments* are disabled by an inaccessible society e.g. Jean can't get into all the shops she wants to because they were designed without access and/or staff are not trained to provide reasonable assistance; or David struggles to find a job because our society allows institutional stigma attached to his impairment to continue to exist. In feminist terms it's like saying women don't have full equality because we live in a patriarchal society.
We have all fought long and hard to move away from the medical model and move towards the social model and to move away from the language of the medical model that places the blame for inequality on the person with an impairment. Those who follow the medical model also have a tendency to minimise, dismiss or ignore impairments without a currently understood physical origin (including many learning disabilities, ME/CFS/Fibromyalgia, mental health conditions and other such things).
With this in mind I'm going to talk about why I personally think the words "able-bodied", "ableism" and "people with disabilities" are problematic.
I find language that describes people without impairments to be able-bodied, exclusionary and there for divisive. There is a pernicious idea held by many in society that most disabled people use wheelchairs (when less than 7% do) and that most impairments are physical impairments involving paralysis or amputation. It comes from things like media bias when selecting representatives, the international symbol for 'disability' being a wheelchair and things like the paralympics where there are a disproportionate amount of contestants with a limited spectrum of impairments. I'm sure you can see why this is less than ideal.
The phrase able-bodied suggests that all disabled people by contrast don't have able-bodies, which is;
a) impairment focused, something that feels very close to the ways of thinking enshrined in the medical model,
b) plays into the problematic stereotype mentioned above and
c) clearly not all disabled people have physical impairments which make their bodies non-able. A person on the autistic-spectrum or with schizophrenia is completely able-bodied yet I think we can agree they still have to deal with stigma & oppression/exclusion from society. A person who uses glasses to correct a physical visual impairment may not ever think of themselves as being disabled or non-able.
Using the social model we have a definition of disability which moves away from impairments and looks at societal oppression/exclusion/barriers faced by those who happen to have impairments. Those who experience that oppression are disabled by it, they are disabled people. Conversely those who do not are not disabled by it. They are non-disabled.
Ableism stems from the same ideas that able-bodied does. That disability equates to not having a body that works as a "normal, able" body should. I feel that it too is exclusionary and harks back to the outdated thinking of the medical model. It also helps enforce the idea that disabled people are less able than non-disabled people. I would argue that there is a massive spectrum of ability within the disabled community, the same way there is a massive spectrum of ability within the non-disabled community. For those reasons I prefer the term disableism to describe the disabling oppression we face.
People with Disabilities
You may have heard about person first language. People with disabilities is an example of that. Person first language was coined as a better way about talking about people with impairments. It's pretty simple, you talk about the person first instead of the impairment. So instead of saying "Go ask the epileptic" people now try to say "Go ask Steve". If the impairment has to be mentioned then it gets mentioned after the person has been, for example "This is Steve, he's here today because has epilepsy and it's flaring up at the moment". It's a great way of using language to avoid de-humanising people with impairments.
The thing is that it's a great way of talking about impairments. As I hope I have explained disability is subtly different to impairments, the two words do not mean the same thing. Both words have different meanings. Impairments are something that a person has a level of ownership over, they are frequently part of who they are. Disability on the other hand is not, it's something done by an inaccessible society to a person. If we were to imply that it was something owned by the person then we'd be taking a big step backwards to wards the medical model. This is why I (and a lot of others) prefer the term "disabled person". It is a stark reminder that the individual is disabled by society. I have heard the arguments that "people with disabilities" is trying to do just that, but I personally don't think that using the language of talking about impairments to talk about disability instead is anything but confusing and slightly counter-productive.
I know that there are plenty of people out there who would argue that the phrase ableism is inclusive of everyone who is disabled, it's not the word and it's construction people should pay attention to it's the meaning/intent. I personally don't agree. Words have meaning, words inspire imagery, words strengthen or weaken conceptions, words are frequently read and heard without intent. I also understand that there are plenty of vaild criticisms of the social model and of the very words disability and impairment and their origins and connotations. I don't want to turn this blog post into a thesis though so I'm going to leave them for another day.
I don't expect you all to agree with me, but I hope this post has helped people explore some of the issues around the language we use.
* an impairment is any medical condition (be it sickness or not), mental health condition, learning disability, genetic or cognitive condition etc..