Disability isn’t always what you think it is, here’s how to address ablism IRL

Ableism, or discrimination against people based on their disability, is ingrained in our society. Disability rights campaigner, Meg Fozzard, sets out how we can acknowledge our own ableism and fully support people with disabilities.

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I am going to be honest with you – before I became disabled, I didn’t know what ableism was.

To put it simply, ableism is the discrimination against someone or a group of people based on their disability and it’s extremely prevalent in our society today. According to the disability equality charity Scope, one in three disabled people feel there is still a lot of disability prejudice in Britain today, but only one in five non-disabled people agree. The fact that many non-disabled people are not aware of what ableism is makes it even harder to confront. 

To me, it is less talked about and more accepted as ‘just the way that things are’ compared to other forms of discrimination. Take, for example, the fact that disabled people are significantly more likely to experience unfair treatment at work than non-disabled people. Or, the fact that around a third of disabled people experience difficulties related to their impairment, including accessing public and leisure services. 

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I am not here to try and prove to you that ableism exists because of facts and figures. Two years ago I had a cardiac arrest and subsequently had a brain injury, which is why I am now disabled. As a disabled person, I experience ableism constantly. I have been waiting at the bus stop and pressed the wheelchair ramp button, only for the bus driver to ignore me and drive away. I have been belittled at work because I am not capable of taking notes in a meeting. It’s a constant reminder that society exists for non-disabled people, and we disabled people just have to struggle through. 

As a disabled person, I experience ableism constantly

You might be a disabled person reading this and think ‘this doesn’t apply to me’, but it does. One of the hardest parts of being disabled is internalised ableism. This is when discrimination against disabled people by society means a disabled person starts to believe that ableism is right.

I think all disabled people experience internalised ableism from time to time. It can take many forms. For example, feeling like you don’t deserve the reasonable adjusts that other disabled people get. I used to feel like I would be judged by people for using a wheelchair when I can walk a few steps, until I learnt the term ambulatory wheelchair user.

I would love it if we lived in a society where disabled people felt more equal to non-disabled people. If we want anything to change, we need everyone to call out ableism on a regular basis. Here are some ways you can recognise your ableism and make real changes. 

Meg’s practical advice for tackling ableism

Expand your definition of disability 

Close your eyes and picture a disabled person. What are you picturing? An old person in a wheelchair? While that might be true for some disabled people, it is certainly not true for all of us. Disabilities come in all different shapes, and the more you understand about disability, the more you can confront your own perceptions. 

A lot of disabled people have hidden disabilities. You might have heard about hidden disabilities recently because of the sunflower lanyard people wear to let others know they need additional support, such as being exempt from wearing a face covering. 

Also, a lot of disabled people’s needs change from day to day. For example, someone with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome might have the energy to walk one day but have to use a mobility aid on another day. The next time you see someone using a disabled toilet that doesn’t ‘look’ disabled to you, have a rethink. 

Think about the language you use

There are words that are obviously ableist. Words like ‘retard’ and ‘spaz’ that used to get thrown around the playground when I was growing up are very clearly rooted in ableism and should never be used. However, some ableist language is more subtle and more pervasive in our culture. 

Some really common phrases like ‘turn a blind eye’ are ableist. Why? Because it reinforces the idea that disability equates with negative traits. You might think it is just a phrase, but using these phrases regularly contributes to negative perceptions of disabled people. 

Similarly, how often do you describe someone or something as ‘crazy’ or ‘insane’? These phrases are harmful when you consider mental illness and again this perpetuates negative stereotypes of disabled people. Some ableist language creeps into slang, like ‘lame’ or ‘dumb’. I try to use other adjectives in place of these ableist ones. My current favourites are ‘ridiculous’ and ‘bizarre’. 

Diversify your online following 

One of the easiest ways to confront your ableism and expand your knowledge of disability issues is by looking online. Go to your Instagram, Twitter, YouTube and TikTok. Are they all (as far as you are aware) non-disabled people? 

In the UK, 14.1 % of the population is disabled; that’s one in every five people. If everyone you follow on social media is non-disabled then you are missing out on so much great content and experiences. There are disabled models, disabled comedians, disabled dancers and many, many others, all sharing unique and amazing posts.

 A great aspect of social media is that it is a really fantastic way to support disabled people, and it’s completely free. Giving a disabled person a like, follow or retweet doesn’t cost anything and it is a way to boost our visibility to the wider online world.

Re-think disabled stereotypes in the media

Consider the last time you saw a disabled person on your screen, and really think about the way they were portrayed. Does their limb difference mean they are the villain, an issue that dogged the recent remake of The Witches? Are they an object of pity or exist to make the non-disabled characters feel better about themselves (also called inspiration porn)? Are they portrayed with a kind of innocence, as assumed of people with intellectual disabilities, like in the film Forrest Gump? All of these are harmful stereotypes. If you know any disabled people, you will know we are so much more than what these stereotypes try to reduce us to. 

Another problem in the media is ‘cripping up’. This is where a non-disabled actor plays a disabled actor, taking a job away from the former. Next time you see a disabled character have a think about whether or not they are a stereotype on an actor ‘cripping up’ and try to support initiatives that are trying to change this. 

The BFI lists an extensive range of resources all fighting for more inclusion in the media. It includes modelling agency Zebedee Talent, which promotes disabled people on TV screens and billboards, #WeShallNotBeRemoved, a UK disability arts alliance, and Naked Stories by Soho Media Club, a podcast revealing the truth about diversity and inclusion in media culture. 

Listen to disabled voices

I saved the easiest one for last. The best thing you can do to confront your ableism and be a better ally to disabled people is just to listen to us and learn from us. When we say that something is ableist, if you are non-disabled, we probably know better than you. 

Hear what we have to say on issues. One of the best things my friends do for me is checking a venue’s wheelchair accessibility before we go, so I don’t have to. They listened when I said that being invited places and not knowing whether or not they are accessible is stressful, and now they look it up themselves for me. 

The more you listen to us, the more you will learn. We need disabled and non-disabled people to be fighting our corner and to make the world a better place. 

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Images: Getty, Meg Fozzard

  • Meg Fozzard, disability rights campaigner, model and journalist

    Meg Fozzard is a disability rights campaigner, model and freelance journalist.

    Meg Fozzard is a disability rights campaigner, model and freelance journalist focusing on disability issues. She can often be found trying to put the non-disabled world to rights on Twitter and Instagram. 

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