Ableism: Types, examples, impact, and anti-ableism – Medical News Today

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Ableism refers to bias, prejudice, and discrimination against people with disabilities. It hinges on the idea that people with disabilities are less valuable than nondisabled people.
Differences in ability are a normal part of human experience. Just under 1 in 5 people in the United States lives with a disability, and worldwide, people with disabilities represent the largest marginalized group, making up 15% of the global population. Despite this, ableism is one of the most common forms of prejudice.
To understand ableism, a person needs to understand what disability is.
There are two models of disability: the medical model and the social model. The medical model treats disability as a health condition. The social model views disability as a concept created by humans.
However, this does not mean that impairments do not exist. The social model argues that that the definition of “disability” depends on context. For example, autism spectrum disorder (ASD) may be a disability in a world that values a neurotypical way of thinking, but in a world that values and understands neurodiversity, it might not be.
There is no single set of characteristics that makes someone disabled in every situation. This highlights the reality that the society a person lives in often informs what they think of as “disability.”
Ableism perpetuates a negative view of disability. It frames being nondisabled as the ideal and disability as a flaw or abnormality. It is a form of systemic oppression that affects people who identify as disabled, as well as anyone who others perceive to be disabled. Ableism can also indirectly affect caregivers.
As with other forms of oppression, people do not always know they are thinking or behaving in an ableist way. This is because people learn ableism from others, consciously or unconsciously. Bias that a person is unaware they have is known as implicit bias.
Implicit bias against people with disabilities is extremely common. An older study found that 76% of respondents had an implicit bias in favor of people without disabilities. This included respondents who had disabilities themselves.
In the study, ableism was among the most common and strongest forms of implicit and explicit bias out of the ones the researchers tested for, surpassing gender, race, weight, and sexuality. It was second only to ageism.
Learn more about ageism.
Ableism manifests in many ways. It exists on different levels of society, including the following:
Ableism also takes on different forms, including:
An important thing to note about ableism is that it affects people differently depending on how others perceive their disability. For example, how people discriminate against those with visible impairments is different from how they treat those with invisible impairments.
Other factors that can influence this include:
Examples of ableism range from blatant hostility and aggression to less obvious everyday interactions. Some examples of these include:
On a larger scale, some examples of ableism include:
Here are some of the ways ableism affects health and healthcare.
Some doctors assume that having a disability inevitably leads to a low quality of life. This is based on the idea that someone can only have a high quality of life if they are nondisabled. It can also tie in to a belief that being nondisabled makes someone’s life more worthwhile.
This bias has serious consequences. It can cause medical professionals to ignore the lived experiences of their patients, incorrectly blame new symptoms on a person’s disability, or withdraw medical support in the belief that nothing they do will help. It can lead to barriers to getting healthcare, as well as avoidable illness and death.
Ableism can cause people to prioritize the health and independence of nondisabled people at the expense of those with disabilities.
For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, some people refused to wear masks to prevent the spread of the disease, despite knowing that older adults and people with certain long-term conditions were at a higher risk.
This shows a clear disregard for the lives of people most vulnerable to COVID-19, and for those with disabilities, as older adults and people with chronic illnesses are more likely to have one.
Failure to control the spread of COVID-19 has also led to people with disabilities spending prolonged time indoors. Some have postponed medical appointments, been unable to access caregiver services, or have been excluded from priority lists for COVID-19 vaccination.
It is well known that historically, doctors used force to restrain the movements of patients with mental health conditions and developmental differences. However, physical restraint still takes place in U.S. education and healthcare settings.
The aim of restraint is often to stop people from harming themselves or others, but some institutions also use it to stop damage to property, control behavior, or as punishment for rule-breaking. Its use is disproportionately high among people with neurological or developmental conditions, particularly children.
According to a report, dozens of people in the United States died in the 1990s and 2000s due to physical restraint. Many were children with disabilities.
Eugenics is the practice of, or belief in, eradicating “undesirable” traits from humans via selective breeding. It was a popular concept among scientists in the early 20th century, and it was responsible for many mass sterilization programs across the United States. It also informed similar policies in Nazi Germany and, ultimately, the Holocaust.
The impact of eugenics is still present in healthcare. In some cases, programs lasted into the 21st century, and many survivors are still alive. The mental and physical impact of the programs continues to affect the survivors and their families.
There are also new technologies, such as genetic testing and engineering, that make it possible to avoid or “edit out” genetic conditions that can cause disability. Some argue this can enable a modern version of eugenics.
Ableism affects everyone. It shapes how people think about physical or mental differences, which anyone can acquire during their lifetime. It also damages society as a whole by:
Anti-ableism means actively working to dismantle ableism. It begins with recognizing that ableism exists, that it causes serious harm, and that nondisabled people benefit from this system. This is known as privilege.
Nondisabled people do not need to think about accessibility or worry about facing ableist discrimination. Others may be more likely to respect nondisabled people or promote them to positions of power. A person, or group of people, can use this privilege to help others.
Some ways to begin practicing anti-ableism include:
Ableism is prejudice and discrimination against people with disabilities. It is based on the idea that being nondisabled is the default, and anything outside that is abnormal or undesirable. It manifests in many different ways, from subtle comments to open hostility.
In healthcare, ableism can affect interactions with doctors and other professionals, healthcare policies, and health outcomes. The idea that disabled people have less value or lower-quality lives contributes to damaging practices that persist today.
Anti-ableism is a way for anyone to work against ableism.
Last medically reviewed on November 7, 2021
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