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Unlearning Ableism

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Unlearning Ableism

Ableism is so pervasive and normalised in society that many struggle to identify it, even persons with disabilities. Many of us still have ableist views and use ableist language without realising it. This is because many of us “learn about disability mostly from non-disabled parents, and / or non-disabled doctors, therapists, and teachers” (Pulrang, 2020).

Because ableism is so ingrained in every aspect of our daily living and in the language we use, it can be hard and unsettling to learn that some of the things we think or say are oppression of persons with disabilities, even when we do not have such intentions.

We recognise that unlearning ableism and learning to embrace disability culture is a continuous process. We also recognise that this is a process and a journey that a person takes on their own will. Hence, a person’s understanding and reflection about ableism is only so far as the person is willing to allow themselves to explore and reflect upon.

If you are reading this page, thank you for wanting to unlearn ableism, and thank you for wanting to do better. You have taken the first step to being aware of ableism.

However, we do not have all the answers for you because we ourselves are unlearning ableism. We can only share some insights about what might be helpful to unlearn ableism.

  1. Acknowledge your own ableism.

It can be hard to accept that we have been ableist in our thoughts, words and actions. However, it is important to recognise that collectively we have learned or internalised ableism from being a part of society. And doing so can help us to take proactive steps to unlearn and dismantle ingrained ableism.

  1. Listen to and learn from persons with disabilities.

Society as a whole are not listening enough to persons with disabilities. As much as things have improved, many still refer to non-disabled experts on disability issues. Disabled people have insights from their lived experiences that are lacking from non-disabled professionals. Many disabled disability advocates are sharing their insights and experiences on social media platforms to combat ableism. They also discuss disability through the intersectionality lens, i.e., gender-disability, racism and disability, and gender, racism and disability.

  1. Believe persons with disabilities when they say that something is ableist.

We cannot emphasise this enough. Read that again.

  1. Reflect on your own words, actions, perspectives and beliefs. Following are some questions to guide you:
  • How have I been ableist in the past? How have I harmed people with disabilities with my actions or inactions?
  • In what ways am I still ableist?
  • What are some ableist words that I use automatically?
  • What can I unlearn or change now?
  • How can I do better in future?
  • What “ability-based” privileges do I have? How have I benefited from those privileges?
  • I have reservations about using a term preferred by disability community (e.g. persons with disabilities instead of differently-abled people), why? What makes me reluctant or uncomfortable to make the switch?
  • I have reservations in believing a disabled community’s stance that a widely implemented intervention or therapy with years of evidence is harmful.
    • Why do I have difficulty believing persons with disabilities and their experiences?
    • Have I examined the ethical practices involved in those studies, such as consent and conflict of interest?
    • Am I aware of the gatekeeping practices in disability research and journal publishing?
  1. Start changing what you say, what you do and how you think.

Stop assuming that disability is visible. Avoid using ableist language. Talk to persons with disabilities, not talk over them with their caregivers or care partners. Always ask persons with disabilities if they need help, and do not insist on helping them if they say no. Start providing accommodations and making things accessible for persons with disabilities, including pdf documents.

  1. Be kind to yourself. 

If you don’t “get it” yet, it is okay to be “work in progress”. Some of us need more time to understand a different perspective. Many of us need more time to practice new ways of thinking and speaking. What matters is that you are unlearning ableism. And for some people, they may find it helpful to forgive themselves for their past ableist actions.

As much as we try not to be ableist, we may still carry ableist views and practices that we are not aware of. And we will likely encounter situations in which others will point out our ableist thoughts, words and actions.

When this happens, it is important to not take it personally. When people with disabilities are pointing out ableism, we want to create awareness and educate others about the ways disabled people are oppressed and discriminated in their daily lives, including social interactions and disabling policies.

Some tips that you may find helpful when you are called out for ableism:

  • Pause before you respond with “I’m not an ableist”. Be slow to defend yourself.
  • Acknowledge your feelings of being called out. It is common for us to feel hurt, disbelief, disappointed, angry, for being told that we are wrong or have caused harm.
  • Before you respond with words, take more time to breathe and reorganise your thoughts and feelings if necessary. It is okay to tell the person that you need some time to think and reflect on what they just told you.
  • Ask questions and listen without judgement to learn more about why what you did or said was ableist or harmful.

Some helpful scripts to use when you are called out for being ableist: (written by Kaylene George)

  • “Thank you so much for telling me! I didn’t think this was ableist, but I see now why it’s harmful.”
  • “Thank you for pointing this out to me. I’m having trouble seeing the ableism here. Do you have the time/spoons to explain it to me further?”
  • “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize how ableist I was being. I will change my language in the future, thank you for educating me.”

However, the most important step is the next one: Take Action

Now that you understand how you might have been or still are ableist, strive to do better. Move beyond awareness and understanding, and take action.

Find out how you can change how you do things in your school, workplace, neighbourhood, the communities you belong in, as well as in your social media posts and chat groups.

Ableist Language to Avoid