May 2, 2006
Many dictionaries don’t even recognize the word classism, let alone the somewhat more obscure term “ableism”. I’ve never heard the term “disablism” used before but I realized when thinking about this that a more apt term would be dis/ableism. Other “isms” that describe systems of oppression like racism and sexism- refer to a specific category that everyone is supposed to have. When filling out a form, you check boxes for race, sex, etc. but there isn’t a disability box because not everyone in considered to have one.
The interesting thing is, unlike one’s race and sex, which generally doesn’t change from birth, dis/ability status can, and often does change throughout one’s life. Through accident, chance or simply the natural decline of the body with age, many people develop disabilities of some kind. Likewise, one is born with a disability can sometimes be cured or is treated so that they are seen as less disabled. Dis/ability thus is interplay between being what is percieved as a “normal” able bodied and minded person and a person with a body/mind that isn’t quite up to the standard.
I think part of dis/ableism stems from the fear of becoming or being disabled which people connect to fear of weakness, vulnerability, old age and death. Keeping people with disabilities out of sight means people don’t have to be confronted with their vulnerabilities. I wonder if we had a broader concept of strength, and a more positive view of the elderly and of death, that that would affect our view of disability.
People with disabilities also challenge the very perceptions of what it means to be human. Humanity is defined by the ability to walk upright, speak and think in a certain way. Because of this disabled people are defined as being outside of humanity, or only partially human. We need a broader view of humanity- we have been struggling to include people of different ethnicities, nationalities, genders etc. in our concept of humanity and we need to extend that to include the concept that people naturally have different kinds of minds and bodies that work differently. The problem is our world is designed to include only people with certain kinds of minds and bodies. Let’s envision a world where all people can live to their potential, live full lives and participate in whatever aspect of life they wish to. Then, let’s find practical ways of making that vision a reality.