Ableism is discrimination, prejudice or a systemic bias against individuals with disabilities. Ableism instills the idea that disabled people are less than people without disabilities. Ableism is commonly connected with other forms of oppression such as racism and sexism. As discussions of ableism have evolved over time, more socially or activist-minded definitions of ableism, such as Talila Lewis’ one, have come to the forefront. Some gravitate toward broader definitions linked to intersectional aspects of identity. Issues like class, race and gender are increasingly being taken into account alongside disability.
Editorial note: This article and its author recognize that both person-first language (person with a disability) and identity-first language (disabled person) are used within the Canadian disability community. As a result, both are used throughout the article.
Legal Protections against Ableism
Canadians are protected from discrimination based on disability under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Protections against discrimination based upon disability are also part of the human rights framework in provinces across the country. (See Canadian Human Rights Commission.)
Despite legal protections, people with disabilities in Canada are not protected in the same ways as those in the United States. Americans have a broad set of protections under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. More recently, Canadians with disabilities have worked toward a similar level of equality. This is largely thanks to the Canadian disability rights movement and the ongoing implementation of the Accessible Canada Act (2019).
Forms of Ableism
While there are many forms of ableism, there are two broad categories that encompass many of them: casual ableism and systemic ableism.
Casual ableism is how ableism can seep into small parts of our daily lives and become unnoticeable. An example is the use of an outdated word to refer to someone’s disability. Casual ableism often takes the form of a microaggression (subtle or unintentional discrimination). It is something we may not initially label as problematic. This could be forcing someone to accept physical help when they have already refused. These actions are problematic as they assume that the disabled person doesn’t know what they can and cannot do.
Systemic ableism refers to ableism that is baked into systems. They might be implemented by the government, medical practice or social norms. Below are some examples.
Ableism in Language
One of the most common ways we see ableism is in the use of ableist words in everyday language or conversation. Words like “dumb,” “moron,” “crazy,” “retard” and “lame” are just some examples of ableist wording. These words have long been used to disadvantage disabled people. This is particularly the case for those in medical institutions, long-term care homes and other living situations outside the community. Some legal documents still use certain ableist terms to refer to disability. This is most common when describing those with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Movements such as “Spread the word to end the word” have long argued against the use of ableist language.
Some ableist words, like crip, cripple and Mad have been used by certain members of the disability community to reclaim that language. The meaning and significance are therefore changed to be less harmful by community members. For disability advocates, it is seen as best practice to never use reclaimed language if you are not a part of that community. This can become particularly tricky in academic or writing situations. However, advocates would argue that it is best to be cautious when using language that is heavily stigmatized.
Ableism and Social Media
Blatant ableism appears regularly on social media through negative comments and harmful stereotypes. Moreover, systemic ableism is often at play. Platforms like TikTok have been criticized in the past for limiting the exposure of content created by disabled people. This is sometimes referred to as algorithmic ableism. Media platforms argue that this is a way to reduce abuse faced by the disabled community. However, activists with disabilities are often resistant to this kind of reasoning.
Ableism on social media is not just reserved for those with physical disabilities. Ableism plays a role in the (potentially) harmful effects of social media for those with invisible disabilities. Harassment of neurodivergent people by notable film celebrities is an example of ableism on social media. Other examples include the defence of harmful portrayals in popular culture and questionable articles about disability and ethics.
Ableism in Employment
One of the most common areas for ableism is within employment. In 2017, Canadians with disabilities aged 25 to 64 had a radically lower level of employment (59 per cent) than those without disabilities (80 per cent). Casual examples of ableism can include job requirements that needlessly ask for employees to be able to lift an exorbitant amount of weight or that put undue stress on applicants with disabilities.
Ableism, or the fear of it, occurring during the job application process is another large concern for those within the disability community. Broadly speaking, it is illegal in Canada to ask a job applicant their disability status during an interview. However, the pressure to disclose this often disadvantages their applications. The fear that a disabled person’s access needs will not be met can also be an obstacle. Those with disabilities have to balance ableist assumptions of competency at work that are not necessarily present for those without disabilities.
Ableism and Immigration Policy
In the late 19th century, Canada implemented policies to ban people with intellectual disabilities from immigrating. Despite the introduction of the points system in 1967, Canadian immigration policy still disadvantaged disabled immigrants. Specifically, the system could refuse applicants who might place “excessive demand” on health or social services in Canada.
Medical Ableism and Eugenics
Perhaps the most striking form of ableism comes in the medical environment. According to research and first-hand accounts, assumptions about disabled people’s lives have negative effects on the care they receive. For example, the ableist perception that a life with disability is a poor-quality life can lead to a refusal of life-saving treatment.
Medical ableism can be directly linked to the eugenics movement. Throughout history, disabled bodies and minds have been characterized as less than ideal, or even unwanted.