Hello folks! This post began as a continuation of the previous post on neurodiversity, but I decided to split them up, as the topic of ableism vs inaccessibility felt as though it deserved its own post. Therefore, if you missed the previous post then I would recommend you catch up here. Otherwise, let’s begin!
In general terms, ableism refers to discrimination or prejudice against a person based on their disability. An example of ableism would be saying “I wouldn’t date a disabled person because it would be such hard work”. I’ll have you know that I’m a great person to date (Probably? I would have to ask someone who’s dated / dating me to confirm), and making sweeping statements about an entire group of people is not acceptable. Disabilities might present different relationship challenges than 2 non-disabled people, but any partner worth their seasoning (I’m really trying with the idioms) knows that requiring adjustments does not make the person a less-good partner. Just as saying “I wouldn’t date a bisexual person because they’re more likely to cheat” is wrong and a stupid, perpetuated myth, assuming a disabled person could never be a good partner, and thus ruling out the entire group, is an ignorant and idiotic thing to do.
Society as a whole is riddled with various inbuilt -isms, from racism to sexism to ableism. We have all undoubtedly heard of the first two terms (if not then where on earth have you been?), but the latter term may be new to some people. I searched for an official definition, and the Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “discrimination in favour of able-bodied people”. Ableism is everywhere you look, from electric scooters posing as dangers to the visually-impaired and blind community, to buildings not having working elevators, from a lack of sign interpreters in hospitals, to ‘Do Not Resuscitate’ orders being placed unknowingly on disabled patients at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. However, having said this, some bright spark might look at these examples and say that they could be considered accessibility issues rather than outright ableism.
So, what is the difference between ableism and inaccessibility? Well, one could argue that “inaccessibility” is just a nicer way of saying “structural / systematic ableism”. Since both people and situations can be ableist without having malice as the driving factor, this would make sense. However, I would argue that there is a subtle distinction. I would say that places, events and situations can be inaccessible, whereas only people can be fundamentally ableist. Ableism refers to either the refusal to acknowledge disabled people, or the active choice to ignore our needs or even make choices knowing that it may cause us harm. Essentially, ableism and inaccessibility differ, as the former implies intent and the latter implies ignorance. Furthermore, I would say that systematic ableism is a term in it’s own right. Situations can be systematically ableist when they have been designed for people’s comfort, without the consideration of those with disabilities. The reason why I specified that situations can be systematically ableist, rather than stating “objects” or “places” is because it is the situation that has been engineered for people’s comfort, not necessarily the object itself. As an example, music is not systematically ableist, but loud music playing in a shop, or the music industry, may be.
While we can all see that putting DNRs on people, purely on account of their being disabled, is completely abhorrent, inaccessibility is less obvious—usually only being noticed by those with disabilities. The fastest (and easiest!) way to get around London is via the Tube… unless you have extreme sensitivity to external stimuli and/or claustrophobia. Cinemas have the volume up high and no distracting subtitles so you can immerse yourself in the film… but if you struggle with sound differentiation and/or find loud sounds overwhelming then you will hate it. Shops keep background music on as it supposedly increases the amount people spend… unless you can barely stand to be in there and have to leave your basket to run out and recover. There are countless more examples in my mind right now but you get my point, right? Lots of mundane facets of society can actively harm, endanger, or disadvantage disabled people. Not to mention they are only problems I face. Those with physical disabilities will no doubt be able to list many things I take for granted that they have to deal with. I guarantee that if presented with any activity or situation, there will be at least one issue that I struggle with that my able-bodied, neurotypical counterparts would not.
Going for a meal in a restaurant? Easy: background music, lots of people chatting, wait staff constantly moving, potential of white uniforms that make my eyes hurt, possible flickering lights, overwhelming smells from the food, fluctuating temperature, sound of doors to the kitchen opening and closing, sound of cutlery clanging on the plates, chairs scraping against the floor, potential for dropped plates or cutlery, to name but a few.
Having to go to A+E (ER for American readers)? Lack of understanding about ASD from medical professionals, smell of disinfectant combined with smells of illness, really bright light, white paint everywhere, screaming children, no sensory aids available, potentially being in pain which makes tolerance for coping lower, constant moving of medical staff, clattering of medical carts through the corridors, people needing to touch you to help you, people taking slow response times as an indication of sickness, etc.
I could go on, even giving examples from sitting down and having a cup of tea with a friend (not all surfaces are made equal. Some make a painful noise when mugs are set down on them). My point isn’t to attempt to evoke a feeling of pity from you, nor do I want a condescending “poor you”. I just want to show anyone who may be reading this who hasn’t thought about situations like this that ableism is everywhere. I’m not saying that your friend with the marble countertops is being ableist: of course not. What I am trying to say is that we as a society have developed standard materials for kitchen counters and mugs that make a god-awful noise when put together. And using metal carts with loose screws and wheels to move a load of medical equipment around is really upsetting when you have sensory issues and are already in pain.
It doesn’t matter where you look: ableism is everywhere. Almost everything is inherently inaccessible because disabled people were not considered in the structuring and building of society. Right from when Asperger was using his research to decide whether autistic children deserved to live or not, to care homes in Germany being considered as an option to receive faulty masks, ableism thrives and manifests in all new ways. The only way to combat it is to become aware and to demand better. I managed to take the tube because I implemented strategies for myself, not because the city spent money on designing quieter tracks. They prefer to spend the money building the HS2 railway and destroying land in the process. And why should people care you might ask? Why should people spend time, money, and energy designing ways to make society more accessible? Because it is the right thing to do. Because everyone deserves the same freedoms to access society. Because everyone has the right to common services. And because improving accessibility serves everyone: not just the disabled. Perhaps my youth means I am idealistic and angry at the lack of justice. Maybe when I’m older I will become resigned to life; feeling total apathy and pitying those vying for reform. And if that’s the case, I hope I never grow old. I hope I never lose the quiet rage that burns inside me from frustration and contempt. I hope the day that I accept that life for me and other disabled people is harder is a day that never dawns. Because the moment the sun rises over the mountains of languish is the day that my soul dies.
P.s. My English teacher would be so proud of how far I’ve come with metaphors!