Among the many issues that plague our society, ableism is one that is not discussed often. Ableism is defined as a set of practices and beliefs that assign an inferior value (worth) to people who have developmental, emotional, physical, or psychiatric disabilities. In many cases, those who do not have a disability or are not particularly close to a person who does, often have a hard time comprehending how the world works for those who are disabled. This can lead to many instances in which the needs those who with impairments can be overlooked or dismissed.
Ableism is a neologism; used to describe effective discrimination against people with disabilities in favor of people who are not disabled. Ableism occurs in what is best described as an ableist society. Ableist societies are said to be societies that treat non-disabled individuals as the standard of ‘normal living’. This results in public and private places and services, education, and social work that are built to serve ‘standard’ people, thereby inherently excluding those with various disabilities.
In the past, many cultures around the world believed those who had physical or sensory impairments were seen as having been cursed by a witch, possessed by the devil, or forsaken and punished by God for the misdeeds of their parents. A prime example of this is in the 1996 Disney animation, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which takes place in the 15th century. In the film, the parents of Quasimodo, the hunchback, were gypsies who had illegally entered Paris. The minister of justice, Judge Claude Frollo, ends up killing the mother of Quasimodo in front of a cathedral. Just as Frollo is about to kill Quasimodo by drowning him in a well, the archdeacon of the church stops him. Frollo begins to explain that the baby is ‘an unholy demon that needs to be sent back to hell where it belongs ’. Frollo is then forced to raise Quasimodo to atone for the sin of killing an innocent woman. Despite the fact that the story is fiction, it clearly depicts the beliefs of pre-Age of Enlightenment societies. In that day and age, those with impairments were seen as unclean and were left for dead, despite the lack of scientific backing.
Once the 18th century rolled around, more scientific understandings of impairments and their causes arose. This caused confidence in medical science’s ability to cure or rehabilitate those with impairments to rise. Those who were then deemed incurable were then put into long-stay institutions or special schools which are comparable to present day daycares. The advances of medical science in being able to sustain and improve the lives of those with impairments are extraordinary. However, is it to be argued that disabled people should not be reduced to just their impairments.
We currently live in a modern ableist society. A society that denigrates, devalues and oppresses those with disabilities while privileging those without disabilities. As those who are abled, we should challenge the norm that says ‘abled people are standard people’. Those with impairments are just like you and me. They are human despite the fact that their needs might differ from ours. It is our job as abled people to make our society more accessible to those who are disabled. This means that all products, services, societal opportunities, and resources are fully accessible, welcoming, functional, and usable for as many different types of abilities as reasonably possible. We must stray from our ableist ways that lean towards isolation, pity, and paternalism. An inclusive society tends toward sociability and interdependency between the able-bodied and disabled, allowing for a mutually beneficial relationship.