Disablism or Ableism?

I used to use the term “ablism” to describe oppression against people who are labeled as disabled and/or the idea that disabled people are not as good as to non-disabled people. Within the past year or so, however, I have begun using the word “disablism” instead. There are a lot of reasons for this, but the primary one is the fact that ableism implies that this oppression is somehow related to ability – which it is not. Disability is a social category and its label is imposed on certain groups of people because of their perceived characteristics as un(der)productive.

Internationally, disablism is the more commonly used term and, it is my understanding, ableism is really used only in North America and Australlia. The reason for this, I believe, is the way the disability rights movement emerged in each country. In the U.K., the emphasis was on the construction of disability and how people were disabled by social barriers. In the U.S. the focus was rights. There are, however, some folks in the United States who do use disablism exclusively or who use them both.

When I began writing and speaking about disability, I used the term ableism; that is what I had been exposed to living in Canada. I didn’t question the term and when, years later, I began to learn about the (British) social model I just thought it was one of those word differences that we have across the pond, like tampon and fanny pack or cigarette and fag. I only began to appreciate the intentional usage of “disablism” in the past few years.

Then, one day, a non-disabled friend of mine was chatting about how someone at her work was being (dis/)ableist. But, she didn’t say that, what she said was “what about ability?” That was when I realized that using ableism makes it really easy for people to equate ablesim with discrimination based on ability. This is a very problematic association. That is why I started using disablism rather than ableism to describe disabled people’s oppression.

Lisa, author of Lizy Babe’s Blog, writes: “If ‘racism’ is discrimination on the grounds of race, surely it is logical that the word for discrimination on the grounds of disability would be ‘disablism’?” She goes on to argue that “‘ableism’ is derived from the medical model of disability – the idea that a disability is something we have, that we are disabled by a lack of ability.”

I also think it is easier for those who use the term ableism to talk about able-bodied people, but this too is very problematic. The opposite of disabled is not able-bodied for a number of reasons. Firstly, “able-bodied” describes a physical state. Many people can be disabled and able-bodied at the same time as there are a number of different aspects of disability, not solely physical disability. What then, within this linguistic logic would you call people who are not psychiatized and don’t have intellectual disabilities? Able-brained? Able-minded? I am offended by my invention of these words and can’t imagine them being used.

Also in the realm of the physical is the fact that able-bodied is adopted from a medical model, as I have already said, disability is not about “the body” of an individual, it is about the social categorization of certain kinds of people.

Lastly, the idea that there are people who are able-bodied and not able-bodied is very troubling. Everyone has an “able body.” Our bodies are what keep us alive, what sustain us – disabled or not. Words like “paralysis” and “disabled” are often used in disablist ways to talk about full stops but this is far from the way disabled people live our lives. If someone becomes disabled, their life continues and their body, while different (and possibly even painful or frustrating) is what allows their life to continue. Chris Chapman writes:

In fact, we could imagine a less ableist account of literal paralysis – perhaps – as being more in line with what Kris describes: if I was to literally lose mobility in my legs today, my life won’t stop, but I’ll be fundamentally changed in enormous ways that I could never anticipate beforehand. It’s only ableism (sic) that situates paralysis as signifying only immobility in every aspect of life.*

We all have able bodies. If we don’t have able bodies we are dead – otherwise our bodies are working, they are able. The opposite of disabled is not able-bodied, it is non-disabled.

Of course, the use of the term dis/Abled also contributes to the idea that disability is about ability. This particular term is used by some very well meaning disabled people and supporters. It is written this way to encourage people to focus on our abilities. However, the problem for disabled people is not a branding issue, it is oppression. The fact that women have proven that they are as smart and capable as men hasn’t changed the reality that women still make roughly 70% of what men make (something that has changed little in several decades). And, to show what women are equally as competent as men, they don’t feel the need to call themselves wo/Men. While dis/Abled often comes from a well intentioned place, it is individualistic and it falsely connects disability with ability which actually works to reinforce our oppression, not the other way around.

There is still disagreement among many disabled activists and academics about which terms to use (at least outside of the U.K. where there seems to be general consensus). I would put forward that we never again talk about the able-bodied and the dis/Abled as these are very problematic. With respect to the disabilism vs. ableism debate, I think that the reasons for keeping ablesim are far outweighed from the benefits to fully replacing it with disablism. The primary reason that folks I have talked to want to keep it is because it is what people know. Unfortunately, within radical activism, the reason that people know this term is because we have taught it to them. People have had similar debates about gender politics. For a good while people called folks who were not trans “bio women” and “bio men” but this was problematic because it reaffirmed the false dichotomy of biological sex. So, we collectively changed it. It took some time but “bio” then became “assigned” which was still not quite right. Now, folks use the term cis gendered to describe people who are not trans (or, my preferred, cissies). Not everyone does it yet but these things take time. Because people knew what “bio woman/man” meant was not a valid reason not to change it. We shouldn’t be afraid to push politics forward, we should, however do so as gently as possible with folks who are sincerely trying to understand things.

Further, I don’t think that the change would confuse people. I mean, disabilism is easier to understand as an oppression linked to disability than ableism. And, yes, we may have to have conversations explaining the change but those are opportunities for political education, opportunities to help people challenge some of the assumptions they have about disability.

Lastly, I think it is important to note that this is not an argument about semantics. The words we use to describe our experiences are the tools that we have to begin building resistance. Let’s go.

* This is a bit of a summary of one of the arguments that Chris Chapman used in a conference paper. October 8, 2010. “Crippling narratives and disabling shame: disability as a metaphor, affective dividing practices, and an ethics that might make a difference,” The Space Between: Disability in and out of the Counselling Room. Toronto, ON, OISE, University of Toronto.

In-text links on this page:

Lizy Babe’s Blog

Chris Chapman