Words such as sexism, racism and ageism are now in common usage and help people understand that discriminating against people due to their differences is wrong and often offensive. However a word to describe disability discrimination is not so well-known. I had to do an internet search to find such a word as I could not think of one of the top of my head. The word Google came up with was Ableism.
According to Wikipedia ableism ‘ is a form of discrimination or social prejudice against people with disabilities.’ Often also known as disability discrimination. Ableism has an entry in the Oxford English Dictionary, which traces the word back to 1981, yet the word is still not well-known.
So what is ableism? For a start ableism is against the law. In the UK disability discrimination became unlawful when the Disability Discrimination Act of 1995 came into being, which was later updated in 2005. Since then the Equality Act of 2010 has formed the basis of anti-discrimination law in Great Britain. The European Union Equal Trade Directives are implemented in the Equality Act, meaning it is illegal to discriminate against disabled people in both UK and European law.
The Equality Act outlaws discrimination in access to education, public services, private services or premises, renting or buying property and in employment regardless of age, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, race, religion, sex, sexual orientation and disability.
This means that disabled people have the same rights as non-disabled people. Children should be able to access a good education regardless of disability. Public and private service providers can not refuse to serve disabled people, nor can they give them an inferior service or charge them more. Employers and service providers must make reasonable adjustments to the workplace to overcome barriers disabled people experience. The disabled person should not have to pay for the adjustments, but the adjustment must be reasonable. What counts as reasonable varies depending on the size of the organisation, the costs of the changes, how much the change would really help you and other disabled people and how practical the changes are.
Ableism is also harassment of a disabled person. Behaviour that is upsetting towards you and often continuous could be considered harassment. Upsetting behaviour could include jokes about your disability, teasing or even illegal things that could be called a hate crime. A lot of hate crime is violent and very nasty. Some harassment can be online via social media or in the form of text messages.
Social Prejudice is a form of ableism, by prejudging disabled people or forming an opinion about them or their condition before being fully aware of all the facts. Prejudice can lead to stereotyping, which according to Merrian-Webster.com is to ‘believe unfairly that all people or things with a particular characteristic are the same’. For example assuming someone with a learning difficulty can not live independently or someone with a mental health condition would be a danger to themselves and to others. Stereotyping disability is not good because most disabilities can vary a lot, even for people with the same condition.
Social Prejudice can hold a disabled person back from being able to join in fully with society, not because they can’t or do not want to, but because society will not let them. Sometimes disabled people struggle to get a job as the employer assumes they may be slower at the job, or will be off work more either sick or having hospital appointments. Some disabled people find joining a club or society hard as the club leader may assume the person can’t join in most of the activities or that the person would struggle to fit in with the group.
Social Prejudice often stems from lack of knowledge or experience of spending any time with a disabled person and only having seen disability as depicted by the media and from what other people have told them. Sometimes the media makes out that disabled people are either tragic and need sympathy or that they are getting a free ride from government benefits. Some social prejudices could be argued to stem from the fear some people have of becoming disabled themselves and not wishing to be reminded of that fear every time they see a disabled person.
My advice to help people understand the needs of a disabled people better is to talk to them. An employer should ask a disabled person at interview about the disability the person has if they are worried about how the disability would affect their work, then they would find out that in a lot of cases it would have very little effect on the work if any. You could try some volunteer work with disabled people as that can be very enlightening to show how much a disabled person can do.
I think the word Ableism should be used more. Giving things a label does seem to help some people understand what they are doing is wrong. If we could say ‘that is such an ableist thing to say’ or ‘that person was very ableist’ it might at least start to help society become more disability discrimination aware.
To find out more about how the Equality Act effects you as en employer, employee or service provider the Citizens Advice Bureau have an online guide at Adviceguide: Disability discrimination
For a more in-depth guide to the Equality Act the government publish a full guide at Equality Act 2010: guidance