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7 Ways to Fight Back Against Ableism

Donna Chambers

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 1 in 5 Americans has a disability. Despite this number, the world is largely built for able-bodied people.

While society has come a long way toward being more inclusive, we still have a lot of work to do. "Ableism" is a form of discrimination against people with disabilities. Here are seven ways to overcome it — and hopefully educate others about the importance of inclusivity.

What Is Ableism?

Ableism is a type of discrimination that can take many forms. In many cases, people don’t intend to treat people with disabilities differently, but they end up doing so because they don’t understand the person’s disability, or they make assumptions about it. Other people view people with disabilities with contempt, pity or even fear.

photo of a group of people putting their hands together in a group huddle.

7 Tips for Combating Ableism

If you or a loved one has a disability, there are ways to help able-bodied people in your life gain a greater understanding of disability. And if you’re an able-bodied person yourself, you can use these tips to transform the way you perceive people with disabilities. After all, a more inclusive world is better for everyone.

Educate Yourself About Disability Issues

If you don’t have a disability, or you’re not close to a person with a disability, you may not realize just how common disabilities are. You may even feel uncomfortable or awkward around people with disabilities. An important thing to remember is that disabilities come in a wide range of shapes and sizes, and various disabilities can affect people in different ways. As a result, there are numerous organizations devoted to helping people with disabilities live fuller, more inclusive lives.

Part of being a good ally is arming yourself with knowledge about the issues and challenges people with disabilities face. While you probably can’t become an expert on every form of disability out there, you can gain some helpful general knowledge about some of the bigger issues that are important to the disabled community. The National Center on Disability and Journalism has a helpful list of resources and links for organizations that promote, serve and aid Americans with disabilities.

You can also simply ask people with disabilities which resources they recommend for learning more about issues that affect them. Many people with disabilities (and their loved ones) are passionate advocates for political and social issues. They might be delighted to learn you’re interested in supporting them by educating yourself about the issues that affect their life.    

Support Disability Organizations

Although 1 in 5 Americans has a disability, not all disabilities receive equal funding and support. Some disabilities are more recognizable simply because they impact a larger number of people. As a result, this greater awareness means more able-bodied people are willing to donate time, money and resources to supporting these causes.

However, some disabilities receive comparatively little support and funding because they don’t affect as many people and thus don’t receive very much of the social spotlight.

If enough people care about a cause, however, this can change fast. A recent example of this is the ice bucket challenge that popped up on social media. As the ALS Association notes on its website, the challenge raised $115 million over an eight-week period in 2014.       

photo of a service dog with a soft focused girl in a wheelchair in the background.

Interact with Disabled People

If you’re unfamiliar with a certain disability, you may be afraid to interact with a disabled person for fear of saying or doing the wrong thing. In many cases, people are so nervous about offending a disabled person they avoid them altogether. Most people with disabilities will tell you this is the worst thing you can do.

First, understand that someone with a disability is just a person. Like anyone else, they have hopes and dreams, unique personality traits and likes and dislikes. They have good days and bad days. They might crave social interaction during certain times. At other times, they may prefer a quiet space or a break from talking.

The Illinois Department of Human Services offers some great tips for interacting with people with disabilities:

  • Treat the disabled person the way you would like to be treated.
  • Ask before offering assistance. Don’t assume the person wants or needs help.
  • Don’t use labels without asking. If you need to refer to the person’s disability, ask them how they prefer you to address it.
  • Don’t treat the person as a child or someone to be pitied.

It’s also important to treat assistance and service animals with respect. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) stresses the importance of treating these animals as “working animals,” not pets.

Finally, disability experts caution against being too inquisitive about an individual’s disability. Although you might be genuinely curious about their disability, peppering them with too many question can start to feel like an interrogation. Keep in mind that they’ve probably answered the same questions over and over again. Let them steer the conversation and the depth of how much information they wish to share.   

Check Your Vocabulary

Disability experts warn that demeaning and inaccurate terminology often creeps into everyday language without many of us even realizing it. Cara Liebowitz at The Body Is Not an Apology writes that certain commonplace terms can be hurtful to those with disabilities.

For example, words like “idiot” and “moron” were commonly used in the early 1900s to describe people with intellectual challenges. Yet today we use them in everyday speech without appreciating the negative connotations. Similarly, words like “retard” and “midget” are hurtful and inaccurate. You might use the term “deaf, dumb and blind” to describe someone who isn’t paying attention, but these phrases can be painful for someone who is hearing or vision impaired.

If you’re unsure how to describe someone’s disability, experts say you should simply ask them — just remember to be respectful when asking your questions.   

Don’t Infantilize People with Disabilities

People tend to associate certain disabilities with children. In other cases, they assume a person’s disability renders them incapable of functioning as a normal adult. Experts say both of these behaviors miss the mark — and even parents and loved ones of those with disabilities can fall into this trap.  

In one study analyzed by Disability Studies Quarterly, researchers found that “parents portrayed the face of autism to be that of a child 95% of the time on the homepages of regional and local support organizations.” However, 500,000 teens with autism will reach adulthood within the next decade. Dr. Temple Grandin, an autistic person and one of the foremost autism researchers in the world, was born in 1947.

Furthermore, autism is a neurological disorder that spans a huge spectrum, and individuals with autism display a wide range of abilities, disabilities and challenges. Experts say it’s important to avoid using “baby talk” or a reduced vocabulary when speaking to a person with autism or another type of disability. You should also speak to the person, not their caregiver or companion.   

photo of a diverse multigenerational and differently abled group of people walking away in a field.

Be Aware of Accessibility Challenges

The ADA, which was passed in 1990, has done much to make public life accessible for those with disabilities. For example, the law requires most businesses to have wheelchair ramps, handrails and accessible bathroom stalls. In some buildings, owners must install elevators or accessible doors.

But not every building or venue is accessible. In other cases, able-bodied individuals use accessible spaces or features, which can prevent people who truly need them from taking advantage of them.

As Erin Tatum of Everyday Feminism writes, she’s often had to use a plywood ramp to maneuver her wheelchair. In other cases, she’s had to wait lengthy amounts of time to board an elevator because large groups of able-bodied people have queued in front of her rather than taking the stairs.

Tatum suggests asking yourself, “Am I using this as a necessity or a convenience?” If it’s the latter, think about taking the stairs or using a regular bathroom stall. That way, these facilities and accommodations stay open and available for people who really need them.      

Ask How You Can Help

Sometimes, the best way to connect to those with disabilities is to simply offer a helping hand — or a willingness to help out if needed or desired. As the United Spinal Association (USA) cautions, however, don’t assume that a disabled person needs help.

Instead, be respectful of the person’s space, and always ask before jumping in with assistance. Let the person with the disability be your guide when it comes to addressing their needs and wishes.

The USA says it’s also important to keep in mind that not all disabilities are immediately obvious. If a seemingly able-bodied person asks for help or an accommodation, don’t question their request. Many forms of disability are “hidden,” but that doesn’t make them any less disabling or challenging.      

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Questions? Give us a call at 855-736-7222, or use our contact form, and one of our knowledgeable team members will be in touch.       

Disclaimer: The content on this website is not intended as a substitute for medical advice. Talk to your doctor or healthcare provider before undertaking any type of therapy or treatment.