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Ableism and how to be a better ally

Ableism: discrimination or prejudice against individuals with disabilities

Ableism is a set of beliefs or practices that devalue and discriminate against people with physical, intellectual, or psychiatric disabilities and often rests on the assumption that disabled people need to be ‘fixed’ in one form or the other. Ableism is intertwined in our culture, due to many limiting beliefs about what disability does or does not mean, how able-bodied people learn to treat people with disabilities and how we are often not included at the table for key decisions.

What does ableism look like in higher education?

In higher education, it would take the shape of faculty not having their courses in an accessible format, of not having visual descriptions for videos shown in class, of not speaking loudly and clearly while facing forward, and of not respecting students’ required needs for DAC accommodations. It would also take the shape of campus activities and events not having ASL or CART, not having seating for those in wheelchairs and scooters in locations where they can equally experience the event, and not considering the disabling factors that may exist for members of the campus community in any campus-sponsored or coordinated event.

Being a better ally

What can you do to be a better ally?

  • Acknowledge and respect individual experiences and abilities
  • Learn about different disability types
  • Leverage your influence to promote accessibility and inclusion

There are two prevalent ways that we identify with disability in language: person-first and identity-first. Both options have implications for how we think about disability.

Person-first language

Distances the person from the disability, ostensibly to separate the person from the negative connotations and stigma with which we have all been socialized. As professionals, many of us have been taught that person-first language is preferable, and some disabled individuals choose to identify as a person first, based on their personal orientation to disability. Example: I am a woman with a disability. I am separate from the stereotypes and stigma you associate with disability.

Identity-first language

Challenges negative connotations by claiming disability directly. Identity-first language references the variety that exists in how our bodies and brains work with a myriad of conditions that exist, and the role of inaccessible or oppressive systems, structures, or environments in making someone disabled. Example: I am disabled, queer, and Latinx. I have an impairment, and I am disabled by societal barriers. These language choices underscore the differences between impairment and disability. “Impairment” is the term used by disability studies scholars to refer to a physiological difference in one’s body or brain. Disability is a lived experience with far-reaching political, social, and economic implications. When referencing disability, naming it explicitly is important. Embrace the word “disability” and avoid the use of outmoded euphemisms such as “special needs,” “physically or mentally challenged,” differently- or alternatively-abled, etc.

Know that you will make mistakes. When you do, own it, apologize, and try again.

Resources on ableism