Why Ableism Hurts Society


CN: This post contains examples of ableist language and slurs

The prefix ‘dis-’ produces an eclectic mix of negative connotations: dismal, disorder, dismay, disagree, dishonest, dislike, distasteful, disjointed, disgusting. It implies a deviation from what is normal or typical. The word ‘disability’ is no stranger to this negative undertone. This three-letter prefix is so powerful, in fact, that it is able to lump around 2,000 Oxford students into a single category – the ‘other’.

The 2010 Equality Act defines disability as ‘a physical or mental impairment that has a “substantial” and “long-term” negative effect on your ability to do normal daily activities.’ Examples include learning difficulties like dyslexia, psychiatric disorders such as OCD and bipolar disorder, and various chronic diseases such as chronic fatigue syndrome, epilepsy, and rheumatoid arthritis. All these examples and definitions include the negative – impairment, difficulty, disorder, disease. While it might be appropriate to call certain conditions an illness so that it can be treated, for many others, the medical community and society need not create disorders that do not exist. Society still bears a medical model of disability – an idea that people with disabilities are pathological, abnormal, and are deviations from the norm. We need to move from this medical model to a social one.

disability not inability cropped
[image description: text reads “disability is NOT inability” against a dark background which pictures braille text]
The reason that disabilities are ‘disabilities’ and not ‘inabilities’ is because people with disabilities are not unable to live a quality life; rather, it is the environment
around us that society creates that prevents people with disabilities from fulfilling themselves. Instead of asking what is wrong with that Wadhamite in a wheelchair, we could ask what is wrong with our buildings that prevent an individual from entering it. Of course, there is nothing wrong with that Balliol student who uses British Sign Language; the problem is that there isn’t a bed shaker alarm provided in case of a fire alarm. The Teddy student with dyslexia isn’t unable to do her work; the lack of provision for dyslexia-friendly text disables her from doing so.

To me, how our society views disabilities is strange. Our society doesn’t medicalise red-green colour-blindness. With up to 10% of men in the UK being unable to differentiate between red and green, many visual media accommodate for this, especially at school. If you had asthma at school, you may have had note so that you didn’t have to do PE. And yet there is a stigma surrounding other disabilities. Mental illness is particularly stigmatised. How many times a day do you hear certain words in everyday language – crazy, insane, mad, retard, psycho, mental, lunatic – that are not being used appropriately? Over 100 years ago, the medical community gave names to various intellectual disabilities. Those with the lowest IQs were called idiots, while those who scored a slightly higher IQ were imbeciles and morons. Now, these words are but historical time capsules, vestiges of a time when we deemed those who seemed different as unfit for society. But we have not yet escaped such ‘ableist language’.

Besides mental illness stigma, there are also negative connotations around ‘lame’, ‘blind’, ‘deaf’, and ‘spastic’. In our society, it has become normal to say that a lecture is lame, that the government is blind to poverty, that the Oxford Union is deaf to the concerns of its members, and that your best friend was such a spaz on their night out. In our society, we define people with disabilities by their disabilities. Consider ‘the blind girl’ versus ‘the girl with a visual impairment’. What about ‘the deaf’ versus ‘people who are hard of hearing’? Does that student really suffer from autism, or does he just have it without the suggestion that he is so agonised by it?

Ultimately, I’m not here to police people’s use of language. It is true that language is dynamic and perhaps in some cases, there is no longer any traces of the stigma that once existed. However, even if derogatory words aren’t being used to insult someone directly, it can still hurt. This is called a microaggression, and is something that is not just faced by the disability community. ‘That’s so gay’ and ‘don’t be such a pussy’ are examples of homophobic and sexist microaggressions. With suicides being the leading cause of death in 20-to-34-year-olds in the UK and one in four people developing mental health difficulties in a given year, can we really afford to be a microaggressive society?

It amuses me that disabilities are to be ‘suffered from’, when, going by the social model of disability, it is really society that suffers. Society suffers in two ways. It suffers from a condition: that it restricts and confines people. In turn, society suffers, as disabled people are prevented from living their life to the maximum and contributing as individuals, individuals with the same desires, hopes, dreams, fears, and aspirations as any other person.

Edited by Sam Pugh