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Understanding What Ableism Looks Like So We Can Change

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At the time I’m writing this, July 26th, 2020, we’re supposed to be celebrating the 30th anniversary of the signing of the Americans With Disabilities Act. But I’m not entirely celebrating this milestone. Why? Because the rampant force of ableism still holds back those in the disability community. Instead, I will recognize the progress that has been made while reflecting on what we still need to work on as a society.

Ableism is defined as discrimination in favor of able-bodied people. Ableism exists everywhere, and often, people don’t notice these microaggressions because they are so ingrained in our culture. These comments and behaviors go unnoticed by those making them because they have not been educated on why these acts are harmful to those with disabilities.

The Americans With Disabilities Act was intended to reduce discrimination, increase employment, and allow access to education for those living with a disability.

Prior to COVID, many employers wouldn’t allow people to work from home. Since many people are temporarily being required to work from home as a result of the coronavirus, hopefully employers will recognize that people can and do work productively from home. Acknowledging that working from home is constructive could remove barriers and allow more people with disabilities to be employed. This will only work if companies move past the ableist idea that work can only be done in the office.

Previously, health insurance companies often would not cover telehealth visits (the ability to meet with doctors, therapists and other providers via teleconferencing). Once again, due to the pandemic, health insurance companies have been obliged to cover telehealth. As a result, it is possible that health insurance coverage of telehealth will expand access to services to people who may not be able to physically get to the facility. Forcing patients to physically present to the office furthers the message of ableism. Additionally, telehealth can reach people who live in rural communities that do not have access to specialists.

So, some things could possibly improve due to the coronavirus shaking up how people work and access care, but many things will remain the same.

Specifically, those receiving SSI benefits are forced to live in poverty as the annual SSI income sits below the federal poverty level. Sometimes, people must stay on SSI instead of working slightly more, if able, so they can keep their health insurance (Medicaid). Having a slightly higher income or getting married could raise income or assets to just above the current government regulations while still being unable to afford the cost of health insurance and/or in-home care that covers their needs.

Also, few housing opportunities available for rent are both accessible and affordable, whether subsidized housing or not. This may be due to the location of the apartment, or the physical unit is not ADA accessible. Being forced to live in poverty, unable to feasibly get married, and being unable to afford appropriate housing due to receiving SSI benefits are signs of ableism.

To this day, some buildings aren’t accessible, even if they were built after the ADA was signed requiring them to follow specific standards. Sure, these buildings may be up to code, but they’re not practical for those who use them. I’d like to add a requirement for architects who design public spaces to hire someone who has a disability to help identify how to make accessible buildings more functional for those who use them. For example, Chris Downey, an architect who became blind due to a brain tumor, continues to work. He helped design San Francisco’s Transbay Transit Center to have different pavements so blind people can tell where they are due to the texture of the concrete. Inaccessibility, even while in accordance with accessibility law, is still ableism.

Rarely do children and adults with disabilities find themselves depicted in the media. While 25% of Americans are disabled, only 1.6% of speaking characters on film have a disability. Alarmingly, 95% of disabled characters on television are not portrayed by actors who actually have a disability. Not hiring qualified disabled actors is ableism.

Often, people use phrases or ask questions that put disability in a negative light. These include “I don’t see you as disabled,” “Can I pray for you?” “You’re so lucky to not have to work,” and “How did you hurt yourself?” These comments minimize the struggle disability can bring, imply that our disability needs fixing and ask invasive questions. They are examples of ableism.

Many times, people with disabilities are talked down to or even ignored completely. People may talk to caregivers or friends who may be out in public with them while not including the individual in the conversation at all. That is an example of ableism.

Eliminating ableism takes time, effort and the will to change. Ableism isn’t just going to go away overnight just by saying “I’m not ableist” in the way many say they aren’t racist although they unintentionally engage in racist behaviors.

Reducing ableism requires normalizing disability in the community. We have an amazing opportunity to teach our children (and adults) that disability is normal. Seeing people using mobility aids such as wheelchairs, canes, walkers, crutches, braces, and so much more and normalizing these aids could begin to prevent the negativity surrounding disabilities.

Teaching our community that some disabilities are invisible is important too. Questioning an individual when they disclose their disability adds pressure for disabled people to “pass” as abled and limits them from receiving whatever help they may need.

Among these invisible disabilities, recognizing mental illness as a disability will help normalize the 20% of the population living with a mental illness and start to reduce stigma.

These past few months, on the path COVID has taken us, we may have made some progress toward a less ableist society, but there is still a long road ahead of us. We must educate ourselves and the community to recognize the ableist mindset, even while unconsciously engaging in problematic behaviors. Only then can we begin to work toward change.

Getty image by Makalish.

Originally published: August 10, 2020
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