I’ve seen ableism being mentioned on Twitter a number of times lately, and aside from the obvious meaning, it wasn’t a concept I was all that familiar with in a mental health context. This post will explore what ableism means for psychiatric disabilities.
An article on the Center for Disability Rights website describes ableism this way:
“Ableism is a set of beliefs or practices that devalue and discriminate against people with physical, intellectual, or psychiatric disabilities and often rests on the assumption that disabled people need to be ‘fixed’ in one form or the other. Ableism is intertwined in our culture, due to many limiting beliefs about what disability does or does not mean, how able-bodied people learn to treat people with disabilities and how we are often not included at the table for key decisions.”
That idea of wanting to fix people may be grounded in good intentions, but even the best intentions won’t negate the negative impact on the person living with the disability.
A report by the Law Commission of Ontario described ableism as:
“a belief system, analogous to racism, sexism, or ageism, that sees persons with disabilities as being less worthy of respect and consideration, less able to contribute and participate, and of less inherent value than others”
The report also points out that ableism can be conscious or unconscious, and may show up in different ways depending on the type of disability in question. It gives the example of zoning bylaws that keep supported mental health housing our of certain neighbourhoods (something I discussed in a previous post on NIMBYism).
In the past, the idea that those with disabilities were not valuable was taken to extremes with the eugenics movement. Large numbers of people with mental illness were sterilized, and the Nazis kicked it up at a few notches by murdering people who were mentally ill or disabled.
Stereotypes play an important role in ableism, and reinforce prejudiced attitudes and discriminatory behaviours. One stereotype is the disabled person as helpless victim. The disability is seen as dominating the person’s life and identity, and it’s assumed that they wish for their disability to be cured. Difficulties around access are attributed to personal characteristics rather than legitimate accessibility limitations in the community.
When it comes to mental illness disabilities, there are plenty of stereotypes that can come into play. In an article on Rabble.ca, the author identified several ableist things she hates hearing, including “you seem normal” and “everyone experiences that.” The latter in particular resonated with me, as it’s such a common thing people say with apparently good intentions, yet it’s so utterly dismissive of the experience of disability.
Ableism and stigma
So is ableism just another way of saying stigma? They’re similar and would have significant overlap, but not exactly the same. Stigma devalues people because they are different in a certain way, whereas ableism is about ability and lack thereof. Ableism also covers a broader umbrella of people, while stigma tends to be more focused.
In terms of what I have faced, I would say that stigma seems like a better descriptor than ableism. Assumptions have been made about me because I have that black mark of having a mental illness, and whether or not I am able to do things has played a much smaller role. I think what matters far more than semantics is recognizing that people do discriminate, and that discrimination may be dressed up in good intentions. And the fact that it’s widespread doesn’t make it okay. It’s just a sign that we need to keep talking.
Is ableism something that you’ve experienced?
- Ontario Human Rights Commission: Ableism, negative attitudes, stereotypes and stigma (fact sheet)
- University of North Texas Office of Disability Accommodation: Ableism: What it is and why it matters to everyone
- Wikipedia: Ableism
You can find more about mental illness stigma on the Stop Stigma page.