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What is Ableism?

the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) writes policies to help people understand what types of discrimination are. In addition, these policies outline how to prevent and respond to instances of discrimination. According to the OHRC’s Policy on Ableism and Discrimination based on disability, discrimination happens through ableism, stereotypes and stigma. In other words, discrimination happens when people have negative attitudes about what it is like to have a disability.

What is Ableism?

Ableism is the belief that people with disabilities have less worth than people without disabilities. For instance, some people may hold the false belief that people with disabilities matter less than non-disabled people because they think:

  • People with disabilities cannot contribute to society
  • People with disabilities need help from non-disabled people, who are more important
  • Certain movements, senses, or thought processes are needed for every-day activities, such as:
    • Working
    • Caring for homes and families
    • Making friends and enjoying a meaningful social life

Moreover, ableism can be conscious or unconscious. In other words, people may not recognize that their actions come from an ableist mindset. For example, an employer might not want to hire an applicant who is blind. This thought comes from the false belief that people need to use their eyes to accomplish most tasks. As a result, many qualified people with disabilities remain unemployed. In turn, a high unemployment rate helps to foster the belief that people with disabilities are not able to work merely because of their disabilities.

Furthermore, ableism can also be systemic. For instance, most houses and apartments are built without accessible features, such as level entrances and wide doorways. Instead, builders often create dwellings suitable only for people without physical disabilities. The idea that some tenants might have disabilities is often an afterthought. As a result, people with physical disabilities have difficulty finding housing where they can live independently. In turn, the fact that some people cannot live independently, due to accessible housing shortages, reinforces the false idea that people with disabilities are not capable of caring for their own homes.

The Harm of Ableism

In short, ableism is a harmful belief system. Although it can be unconscious, it has effects that negatively impact people’s lives in many ways. Therefore, the OHRC compares this belief system to other negative belief systems that people may have, including:

  • Racism
  • Sexism
  • Ageism

For instance, people who are racist seem to expect that “normal” people are white, while they view people of other races as “not normal”. Likewise, people who are ableist think that it is normal to be non-disabled, while having a disability is strange or surprising. People who have these belief systems seem to expect that all people are the same, and react with fear or dislike when people differ. However, people have always had a variety of disabilities, just as they come from many racial backgrounds.

In addition, anyone can gain a disability at any stage of their lives. People who have grown up with ableist attitudes may find it difficult to adjust to having a disability. In contrast, someone who is open-minded toward people with disabilities may find it easier to accept newly acquired disabilities of their own. Therefore, a society that expects to work and live with people who have disabilities will be a better place for all people.