I Don’t Get It: Ableism 101


Words || Erin Christie

I must admit, when I first heard the term ‘ableism’ in my early days at university, I thought it sounded pretty made up. This is because my appearance as an able-bodied passing person gives me privilege over those who visibly suffer from a disability. Have I lost you already? Read on for a little bit more of a comprehensive understanding of the discrimination faced by the disabled community.

Ableism is the idea that those that suffer from a disability are discriminated against within society in numerous ways. Although they are obviously physically or mentally different from the able-bodied members of society, they are no less deserving of respect and understanding. Ableism can be quite obvious through acts of bullying, exclusion, infantilisation or trivialisation from able-bodied people. ‘But you don’t look disabled’ is a common one I hear, but that’s my personal experience. However, ableism is complex because although discrimination is often quite obvious, systemic ableism can be a little bit harder to comprehend.

Systemic Ableism
Systemic ableism tells us that there are social parameters in place to keep disabled people from becoming equal to able-bodied folks. Accessibility is probably the easiest explanation of systemic ableism, but watch out for it in other definitions.

Accessability is ensuring that disabled folk can access all places without any added difficulty. Think about walking down a footpath – is it bumpy due to drains, or difficult to navigate due to weird cobblestones? Then it’s definitely more difficult to handle in a wheelchair. Have you ever noticed a disabled parking spot that’s on the opposite side of the building entrance, and thought ‘hmm, redundant?’ Or a train station without an elevator? Because that’s systemic ableism. I was sitting up the back of the Enmore for a Smith Street Band concert this year, and witnessed a girl who had very serious difficulty with walking, who had selected a seat at the very end of the row in order to have more accessibility. However, those complete dickheads that go to Smith Street Band concerts, very often called out by the band, decided to ignore their ‘seated’ selection and stand up in the rows in front of the girl, who had to lean right out of her chair to see a glimpse of the concert. A well-meaning security guard told them all to sit the fuck down, but they stood up again as soon as he left. This was pure ableism and inaccessibility on display, AND IT WASN’T OKAY, OKAY? Be mindful, my friends, I absolutely beg you! People in wheelchairs, or those who have difficulty walking, should be able to access all areas (and concerts) that able-bodied people can.

Academic Ableism
I’m lucky in that I’ve always attended schools and universities that have accommodated for my inability to handwrite for more than 30 seconds without pretty extreme pain. However, searching the #AcademicAbleism hashtag on Twitter has revealed some deeply disturbing shit. This is when students are often denied the opportunity to learn because a professor or teacher won’t accommodate for the needs of the student. When completing my HSC, I had to have a written statement from my neurologist, and my psychologist to confirm that, no, I wouldn’t be able to handwrite, and no, I was definitely too anxious to have a scribe. Even then, my teachers still didn’t think I’d be approved for a laptop. And when I was, my fellow students still cried unfair, leading me to my next term …

This is someone with an invisible disability. This is a complicated one for multiple reasons. Just because people can’t see your disability, it doesn’t necessarily mean your physical suffering is any less than that of someone who is noticeably disabled. However, the choice to not disclose your disability does give you a lil’ bit of that sweet, sweet privilege, IMO. Then again, it might mean your needs are often ignored. Because I was so good at appearing to not have a disability all throughout school, I still had to complete P.E. assignments, walk for miles on excursions, give presentations even though my nervous voice is so slurred it’s basically indecipherable, and my hand tremors make reading off palm cards impossible. Basically, this one is a total minefield, and if you don’t get it, it’s okay, because it is really difficult to get. Just practice that empathy, baby, and you’ll be fine!

And a note on practicing empathy…
Educate yourselves! That’s all you can really do, guys, as well as your absolute best to understand the struggles of disabled people. Also, I’m going to recommend you look up both Rosie Jones and Stella Young, two disabled comedians who make me giggle. I truly believe that if you take disabled people too seriously, you’ll never really understand us, and therefore never really treat us equally.