Ableism is a form of discrimination against the disabled. It can manifest itself through the language or actions of individuals, be perpetuated by inconsiderate government policies, or be institutionally ingrained in businesses, schools and universities.
Not only can it be extremely upsetting for disabled people on a personal level, ableism also contributes to the disparities in wealth, education and employment levels between disabled and non-disabled people.
While it can be a less obvious form of discrimination, ableism should not be taken lightly. It is a hugely complex and challenging subject to handle and institutions certainly need to do more to promote accessibility within their normative practices.
However, there are also steps that we as students can take in unlearning our own everyday ableist behaviours to promote a culture that welcomes all people.
If you can, take the stairs instead of using a lift to make room for those who don’t have the option. Don’t use accessible toilets unless you have to. Of course, this is a personal step and we shouldn’t harass our fellow students if we think they are using accessible options ‘unnecessarily’, but if you know you are able to change your behaviour to benefit others then you should.
If you’re planning society socials – or any social event – make them welcome spaces for all. Ensure that all venues have wheelchair access, welcome support animals, and have quiet spaces for autistic people experiencing sensory overload to go to decompress. Small steps such as these can help disabled people to integrate into all aspects of university life without feeling as though their conditions are an inconvenience.
Changing how we speak is also incredibly important. More obvious slurs like r***** are obviously extremely harmful, but it is amazing how many other examples of ableist language crop up in everyday conversation. We’ve all been guilty of describing a night out as ‘mad’, ‘crazy’ or ‘insane’, people going through messy breakups can be quick to brand their exes as ‘psychopaths’, and after scoring a low mark on an exam you may refer to yourself as an ‘idiot’ or a ‘moron’.
While these words may seem inoffensive, they have damaged disabled people throughout history and need to be unlearned to promote a more inclusive society. Replace these words with what you really mean, ‘lame’ with ‘bad’, ‘stupid’ with ‘ignorant’ or ‘mental’ with ‘ridiculous’; buy a thesaurus, it’s not that hard.
Ableism is deeply ingrained into our culture but by recognising everyday ableism and working to unlearn our own problematic behaviours, we can help make society more welcome to all.
image: Ian Turk via Flickr