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  • Writer's picturePeta

What is Ableism?

As a disabled person, I have been ableist. Found out what ableism is and how we can all be better allies to the disabled community.

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Peta [00:00:02] Hello and welcome to The I Can't Stand Podcast, the podcast, answering your questions on what life is like when you have a disability. My name is Peta. I had cerebral palsy and I'm your host. This week's question came anonymously. I spoke at Melbourne University a few weeks ago and this question was sent to me after the session. If you would like to ask me a question, there are three ways you can do so. One via my Instagram @petahooke. Two by email at Or three by my website, OK, without any further ado, let's get into it.

[00:01:03] When I first received this question, I was super intimidated and to be honest, I'm still a little bit intimidated. I hope I do this question justice and I've done so much research, but I have to acknowledge that I'm still learning in this area as well. The question sent to me this week was, what is Ableism? And what should I do when people say it doesn't exist?

[00:01:35] Wow, this is quite a step up from 'drunk Peta', which I admit is one of my favourite episodes, but I am so pleased that you guys are starting to hit me with the really hard-hitting questions because it's causing me to learn as a result and for me to evaluate my behaviour to make sure I'm a better disability advocate.

[00:01:59] So what is Ableism? Well, it's one of the isms that we're probably less aware of. Where many of you, I'm sure, are fully across the concept of sexism and racism and ageism but what is ableism? According to the Centre for Disability Rights, ableism is a set of beliefs or practices that devalue and discriminate against people with physical, intellectual and psychiatric disabilities.

[00:02:35] OK, so we know who ableism affects. How does it negatively affect those groups? Well, it often rests on the assumption that disabled people need to be fixed in one form or another. Ableism is so intertwined in our culture, it limits the belief in people's capacities with disabilities to engage in the community. So let me give you some examples of what ableism is. First of all, it's language, and this is where I probably need to do some improvement in myself. They're common phrases that many of us use in our day to day conversations that may not be directed towards people with disabilities, but they are negative connotations about how we feel about life. For example, turning a blind eye. Seems like a pretty innocuous statement, right, but many people in the vision-impaired community find this a very derogatory statement because to them, being blind or having vision impairment is inherently awful but the phrase turning a blind eye itself has negative connotations.

[00:04:02] How many times do you read in the newspaper that a government is turning a blind eye to a particular issue? It's always spoken about in negative connotations and that is at the heart of what ableism is in language. It's using phrases that the disability community doesn't necessarily consider to be a negative, but the interpretation of the general population is negative. Falling on deaf ears, another one you probably hear about a lot in the media. Being deaf and hearing impaired isn't inherently negative to that community. In fact, they themselves often consider us hearing individuals as the disabled ones. You only have to be in a room with people who have hearing impairment to feel inadequate. I was once in a conversation with some people who had a hearing impairment. And it's similar to when you go overseas and you don't speak the language. I was trying to communicate with this group of people, and because I couldn't use Auslan, I was out of the conversation and a few lovely individuals had to sort of interpret what was being communicated in front of me. Being deaf isn't inherently negative, it's only our perception as hearing individuals that it would be awful. But that's only because we've been taught to feel like it's awful, it's not the reality for many people with hearing impairment.

[00:05:55] So I have definitely said the word lame, that's so lame. And for some people, that's a derogatory statement because technically I probably am lame because I can't walk, and that inherent negativity of that double meaning of the word just really determines in other people's minds inherent ableism. You might not consciously understand your interpretation, but it's again, reconfirming to people in society that if you have a disability, it is awful.

[00:06:35] So the second part of the question is, what do you do when people say it doesn't exist? To be honest, I think if people say to you that ableism doesn't exist, they don't turn on the television or listen to podcasts or turn on the radio or walk out their front door, because there is inherent ableism throughout the world, really. Some of which are very obvious to me and some of which I've had to educate myself on as well. I'm learning about my inherent Ableism within myself. You know, I came from the perspective of when I was young that I didn't have a disability. I was just Peta. I'm still working that I believe in and in my own head because by not having a disability, my life wasn't as bad as it could be if I did. Now, of course, you know me. I was born with a disability, cerebral palsy from day one. The very first time you take a breath or not a proper breath, in my case. So my internal coping mechanism was to say that I didn't have a disability.

[00:07:51] That just goes to show how people with disabilities themselves perpetuate ableism. So don't feel bad. I'm still learning it's OK that you are, too, and it's OK if you sometimes stuff up and say the wrong thing or, you know, you misunderstand the context of certain words. Ableism stems from people who don't have disabilities taking the choice and control away from people who do have disabilities. I mean, I've spoken about institutions on this podcast before and the impact that they have had. The impact of sterilisation and taking away that choice and control of people with disabilities. The scary, scary statistics that are around people with disabilities experiencing domestic violence. The overall earning capacity and living standards of people with disabilities. And the inequality overall of inaccessibility that results in community participation being heavily reduced and impacted.

[00:09:04] The issue is ableism confirms to society that having a disability is a tragedy, that our lives are not worth living, that we should be happy if we just got out of bed because that is so inspirational for somebody with a disability. Where in reality, if you speak to people with disabilities, like I spoke to Elle Steele last week on the podcast, having a disability for her is something to be proud of. And I think it's really important for society to realise that we are proud to have a disability. It's defined us. And despite how difficult and challenging it is, I think it's made me a better person.

[00:10:00] I came across this fantastic article from the Harvard Business Review, and that gave four steps to how to reduce ableism. So step one. Acknowledge people with disabilities around you. Don't try to fix disability. That's not the issue, the issue is fixing the systemic oppression. And like, look, that is a massive undertaking, so easier said than done, but that is the number one goal.

[00:10:42] Step two learn. This podcast is a great first step in learning what ableism is and how we can fix it together. I'll also encourage you to look at the links in the description and see whether you want to learn in different formats from different people. In different perspectives, I've got journal articles, I've got books, I've got newspaper articles, I've got YouTube, I've even got Tiktok. There are all sorts of formats now that enable us to learn in ways that we're more comfortable with.

[00:11:23] Step three, don't make assumptions about someone's identity. When you're unsure of someone's identity, just ask. Now, yes, I'm probably pretty obvious that I have a disability because I use a wheelchair. But sometimes it's better to ask the person how they want to be referred to. I appreciate when people make that extra effort to ask me and I'm sure other people with disabilities feel the same way.

[00:11:57] The last step, step number four, when you make a mistake, genuinely apologise. We're all learning here, including me, as I keep saying. Because we're all human, we all make mistakes and we're all in the process of learning and getting better. So if you do say the wrong word or misunderstand something, apologise. Move on. Don't make a big deal out of it. I really hope this podcast has enlightened you on what ableism is in sort of a friendly and non-judgemental context. That is my aim always. I'm learning and I'm happy you're here learning with me too.

[00:12:48] Thank you for listening to this week's question. I hope you enjoyed it. I certainly learnt a lot. If you could please write and review the podcast. I would really appreciate it. It helps a podcast get found by more people. Better yet, share on social media or send it to a friend. I really want to help as many people understand what it's like to live with a disability. So I need your help to do that. OK, until next week bye.


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