Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Tonia Christle for a summer series highlighting great writers who focus on disability. Tonia writes about, what is ableism?

what is abelism

[Image is: A sepia toned photo of the back of a blonde haired boy sitting alone on a step. He has his head in his hand and appears lonely.]

Most simply, ableism is discrimination against people with disabilities.  People with physical, emotional, intellectual and psychiatric disabilities all experience ableism.  For the sake of this piece, and because it’s the type of ableism I have experienced the most, I’ll be focusing on ableism surrounding those with physical disabilities.


Ableism is harmful because it’s a bias in favor of nondisabled people, which views disabled people as inferior because of our disabilities.


Ableism that I have experienced traditionally takes on two forms: In the first kind of ableism, people’s expectations for me are too high and so I’m viewed negatively because I can’t perform the same task as an able bodied person.  In the second form of ableism, people expect nothing at all from me, and praise me for existing, for going out in public, etc.  Both types are equally damaging.

I have heard, from some parents, is that there is a difference between those of us who may have physical disabilities but are able to communicate versus those of us who cannot readily communicate because of a disability like autism, Down Syndrome, or even more involved Cerebral Palsy.  I hear from some parents of kids who can communicate less easily that it is somehow “different” for those who are autistic or have other intellectual disabilities. The implication is that people with disabilities that impact their communication are not bothered by such things.

Ten-year-old Fox (blogger at Fox Talks With Letters) is autistic and communicates via Rapid Prompting Method.  Fox shares his frustration at constantly being taught below grade level, because he could not speak orally, and therefore, it was assumed that he could not understand:

I really don’t understand why I need to prove my intelligence in order to be taught anything interesting. I am not sure what harm it would do to teach interesting things to someone who really didn’t understand. I know all about how harmful it is to not teach someone who is understanding. It is feeling stupid, it is feeling not respected, it is feeling stuck, it is feeling hopeless, it is feeling really sad.”


Pay attention to the way you think about people with disabilities.  To help with this, use a nondisabled person of the same age to compare, or think of yourself at a similar age.

Would you speak to a nondisabled eight year old like a baby?


Would you tell a nondisabled adult “good job” for going to the store?

Would you tell a nondisabled teenager whose work space in home economics or wood shop was too high for them that they could reach it if they tried harder?
There are exceptions.  For example, I did not learn to tie my shoes until I was ten years old.  I didn’t have the fine motor coordination necessary until then.  I had been practicing this skill on and off since I was seven.  It was something I worked hard at and put time and energy into.  And when I did it, I felt proud of myself.  So while you probably would not usually praise a ten year old for tying her shoe, maybe you would praise the ten year old who worked at being able to do that for three years.


In this day and age, you probably would never think of saying to your male-identifying son, “I wish you had been born a girl.”  You probably wouldn’t go out looking for the latest treatment to heal him of the gender he identifies with, which is, in his case, the gender he was born with.  You wouldn’t say things to him like, “It sucks that you’re a boy.”  Or, “Boys are so much more work to take care of.”  You probably wouldn’t be okay reading articles online about parents saying “I don’t know if I could love my child if he’s a boy.”

Your child can’t help being born a boy anymore than a disabled child can help being born disabled.  Hearing comments like, “My child has CP – and it sucks!”  “I don’t know if I could love a disabled child,” or “my child / his wheelchair is so heavy!” are damaging to us.

So while it is totally okay to have your feelings as a parent, be mindful of where, and to whom, you express them, especially if they are about you coming to terms with your child’s disability.  What is life-changing for you is totally normal for us.  And a lot of disabled adults feel that disability is just as much a part of our identity as our gender or our race.  It’s something a lot of us were born with.  It isn’t something that we chose.  In some ways it does make our lives more difficult.  But it is ours, and we embrace it as something that gives us identity and community.

Ableism is everywhere in today’s society. And we are today’s society. So let’s challenge ourselves to change the way we look at disability.

Let’s make sure ableism stops with us.

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