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Ableism is a form of discrimination or prejudice that affects people with disabilities. Ableism manifests in multiple ways, from milder forms like insults and bullying, to serious issues like abuse apologism and murder. It is based on the idea that people with disabilities are somehow "less than" people without them. It can take more blatant forms, like bullying and neglecting people with disabilities, or more subtle forms, like talking down to disabled people and treating them like children or objects of pity.
In Nazi Germany those with disabilities were targeted due to being seen as biologically inferior and a threat to the building of a "genetically superior" race. Over 300,000 people with disabilities were sterilized and over 200,000 were killed during the Nazi regime for having either mental or physical disabilities. Hans Asperger, for whom Asperger's syndrome is named, concluded that the hyperfocused nature of his patients meant some were worth keeping around for the rest of society to use as drones or useful idiots, but sent many more to a nearby facility where they met certain death.
While the Nazis are perhaps the most extreme example of ableism, it was not uncommon for other countries, including the United States, to promote the sterilization of those with disabilities during the heyday of eugenics.
Communists were not immune to these ideas either. The Soviet Union segregated children with disabilites from the rest of society for standing in the way of building a communist society. The disabled were likewise victimized by Pol Pot's regime for being unable to either work on or make the journey to collectivized farms.
Ableism can be understood as use of language that may be disparaging to people with disabilities, even if used to refer to something unrelated. Among the more commonly disparaged examples is the use of the word 'retarded' as a descriptor of a person or a person's actions, or labeling political ideologies one disagrees with as mental disorders.
The strongest examples of ableist language include derogatory terms like "retard," "cripple," "spaz," and "midget." Some people define ableist language to be more broadly, to include words like "crazy," "lame," and "dumb." They argue that these words can be hurtful. For example, saying "anti-vaxxers are crazy" might be insulting to people with mental illnesses, who may not appreciate being compared to anti-vaxxers. Other people argue that milder ableist language is not a big deal, and that it's unhelpful to act like people with disabilities have incredibly thin skins.
People on social media sometimes enjoy trying to armchair diagnose people they don't like. One example is #DiagnoseTrump, in which people tried to armchair diagnose Donald Trump with mental illness, much to the horror of some people with actual mental illnesses who felt very insulted by the comparison. This rarely does much to actually harm the person's reputation, and mostly just throws people with disabilities under the bus.
Treating persons with apparent disabilities as deficient or incapable, even if well meaning, further affects people with disabilities even beyond their actual disability. Speaking to a person using a wheelchair as if they were a child disempowers and likely insults the person with a disability.
In some theories of disability, the extent of the disability is exaggerated or even fully created by the physical and social environment surrounding people, rather than by the consequences of any actual impairment. Elevators, for example, that don't accommodate people with vision impairments can be seen to be a barrier to full function. In this theory, a failure to create a physical environment suitable for all to use is a form of ableism, one that is either legally sanctioned or not addressed through straightforward legislation.
Ableism remains a problem at the societal level.
“”The message about disability is loud and clear: the prospect of having a disabled child is not acceptable for many prospective parents.
The widespread abortion of fetuses with certain disabilities sends some less-than-positive messages to people who live with those disabilities. One report noted that nearly 100% of Icelandic families abort fetuses that test positive for Down Syndrome (although some families choose to forego testing).
Sterilization of disabled people has not died out, either. While some disabled people make the choice to be sterilized just like non-disabled people can, there are cases of caregivers trying to make this decision for them. One high-profile example includes the book To Siri With Love by Judith Newman, in which she mocks her autistic son, says that she wants to sterilize him on his 18th birthday, then claims that autistic people can't be good parents. In the US, some states have laws allowing people with disabilities to be sterilized without their consent.
Abuse and Neglect
“”Imagine if someone punished you whenever you cried when you were hurt or sad. Imagine if someone took away things in your life that made you feel better when you were hurt and uncomfortable and overwhelmed.
|— Eli Arduengo-Profeta describing abuse in Applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy for autistic children|
Some disability-related therapies have undergone criticism for being unnecessarily cruel, abusive, or even torturous. In particular, many autism therapies can physically or emotionally harm autistic people, such as training them to be obey any order they are given, injecting them with chemicals, or forcing them to drink bleach. Parents can even publish books about abusing their disabled children.
Special education is not always a safe place for disabled children, who may be subjected to physical restraint (such as being forcibly pinned to the floor) or seclusion (such as being locked in a dark closet for an indefinite length of time). Children may be left with cuts and bruises in addition to emotional scars. Sometimes, the police are called not to stop the abuse, but to arrest the children for "not listening" or not staying calm. Disabled children depend upon the adults around them to treat them well, and sometimes fall victim to horrific abuses.
When a disabled person is killed, especially by one of their caregivers or loved ones, the media may sympathize with the murderer, calling it a "mercy killing" or "final act of love." Stories center the experience of the (attempted) murderers, such as when Kelli Stapleton was able to broadcast her story on Dr. Phil after trying to kill her autistic daughter Issy. Media coverage that blames people with disabilities for their murder, shockingly, may have negative effects.
Unsurprisingly, it's not uncommon for anti-vaxxers, who act like having a dead child is preferable to having an autistic child, to express sympathy for murderers of autistic children. In fact, some murderers have expressed anti-vaccination beliefs.
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- Livingston 2000. When Architecture Disables: Teaching Undergraduates to Perceive Ableism in the Built Environment
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- An Open Letter to HarperCollins about TO SIRI WITH LOVE
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- https://www.quora.com/Is-every-kind-of-ABA-therapy-abusive Quora: Is every kind of ABA therapy abusive?]
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- Polly Tommey won’t judge parents who murder their disabled children. That’s part of the problem
- Karen McCarron asks for new trial, claims she believed Katie would be resurrected without autism