Hey, You — Here Are 10 Examples of Ableism
Last updated: May 2021
Ableism: Discrimination [whether purposeful or not] in favor of able-bodied people.
This article is for people who love someone with a chronic illness, for people who are just learning about chronic illness, and for those who live with an illness but want to learn more about how to talk about it (we are all always learning!).
And please feel free to send this piece to those people who still feel it's necessary to tell you, "You don't look sick at all!" It's a nice sentiment — but it's loaded. And below, we'll get into why. This is a judgment-free zone where we can learn how to adjust our intent, thoughts, and expression through language and behavior.
We talk a lot about ableism in the disability community — and for good reason. Ableism is insidious, and it hides in all the societal crevices we can easily miss.
Once we start noticing the problems — both big and small, explicit and well-intentioned — we can work to not only get rid of the emotional pain of stigma but made inroads toward an equitable and accessible world.
I'll share my own experiences with ableism first — acknowledging fully that as a (mostly) mobile individual my experiences are not like others.
I was on a packed AirTrain at the airport after a nine-hour flight and I was in so much pain I couldn't walk. My back had totally spasmed and my hips gave out. I asked a younger man sitting down if it would be possible for me to squeeze in next to him (he had bags next to him) to sit down as I was unable to stand anymore. I wanted to be polite and not just move his belongings. He simply looked me up and down and said, "You look perfectly fine to me." It was shocking and nasty and I was taken aback by a rush of shame, guilt, and embarrassment — even though those emotions didn't belong to me. At all.
A woman then graciously offered her seat to me, noticing me holding onto the poll and hunching over. I said thank you and explained that I had a spinal disease. The guy watches all of this happen and mutters — smugly — from the corner, "Well why don't you have a cane or something?"
Yeah. The assumption that all disabled people look one way is ableism. So is the explicit rudeness toward someone who needs help.
When I tell friends or family members that I'm having a rough day with pain or fatigue and they say, "Oh well you look totally fine!" This is similar to the above situation in that people have a narrow definition of disability — but it also is an example of erasure. It is not necessary to tell me that I look fine because that doesn't change how I feel. And in an effort to be kind, it stops the conversation by minimizing my experience and redirecting my narrative (I'm not feeling good, may need some help) to one that they feel more comfortable with (me being pretty and totally okay so they don't need to worry or listen).
Other examples of ableism (and the influence an ableist society has on people)?
- Judging someone for being sick and having to cancel plans
- Telling someone, "At least it's not cancer," or something similar
- Offering cures and suggestions for treatments without being asked and without researching the condition
- Not being friends with someone who has a disability because you are freaked out or don't want to be judged
- Assuming someone is less-than or lazy or dumb because of any kind of disability
- Thinking that making things for disabled people more accessible is a burden, waste of time, or pointless
- Telling someone their lifestyle or nutrition or lack of spirituality is a reason or cause for their disease
- Not needing to make a space accessible because "most" people can access it
What are your experiences with abelism?
Have you ever been ableist (it's okay to talk about it because we don't all know everything from day one and we all have to learn)?
Do you notice worsening flares in colder weather?