We don’t have much control in many aspects of our lives. From social status to ethnicity, we don’t get to decide where we land. It’s common knowledge that it’s not right to judge people based on things outside of their control, yet up to this day, discrimination, whether intentionally or unintentionally, is still a major societal issue in dire need of addressing. We, as a human race, have been fighting long and hard to change the status quo and create a world free of prejudice, but prejudice takes many forms. Often unnoticed or ignored, this discrimination is a sneaky and invasive disease. One of the more obscure yet crucial forms it takes is Ableism.
Ableism, for those unfamiliar, is the prejudice of people with disabilities. Rakshitha Arni Ravishankar defines it as “discrimination or social prejudice against people with disabilities based on the belief that typical abilities are superior.” Ableism can take the form of many things, from laws to even the unconscious use of slurs. It treats them as inferior or defective because of their disabilities. Disabilities are usually sensitive topics that have affected the disabled much more than we can imagine. It is important to note that ableism is an umbrella term used to discuss topics of prejudice. A key flaw with using this term is that it fails to identify the plethora of wildly different disabilities.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a world wide authority on medical knowledge, defines a disability as “any condition of the body or mind that makes it more difficult for the person with the condition to do certain activities and interact with the world around them.” At first glance, you may be thinking that this is very situational, but in reality, disabilities and in extension ableism is much more widespread. Disabled World, an organization focused on delivering statistics on disabilities across the world, says that around 10% of the current population suffers from a disability, and that 80% of these people live in developing countries. Our own country, the Philippines, is no exception. Around 12%, according to the Philippine Statistics Authority, of people aged 15 and older suffer from severe disabilities and around 32% are aged 60 and older.
Having a disability is life-changing and can have major effects on a person’s entire life. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), disabilities have three dimensions. Impairment in a person’s bodily and mental function, Activity Limitation causing actions to be more difficult, and Participation Restrictions in engaging in common activities. Disabilities can cause a person to be socially isolated by their peers, or unable to acquire medical services. They can restrict people from self-sufficiency and independence. Disabilities can be genetic like diabetes and Down syndrome. You can also develop disabilities through injuries and aging. Based on this information, you probably know someone who has a disability.
Nitty Gritty Concrete
Now, let’s actually discuss ableism in a concrete context. Ableism is shown generally through two conveyors: individuals and institutions. Individual ableism can be as simple as being condescending or baby talking to a disabled person, or simply not wanting to talk to them because of a “deformity”. Throughout history, ideas of disabilities and ableism have morphed and changed, but a common theme is the moral ambiguity and ethical dilemma that comes with acknowledging disabilities as a disadvantage.
Ableism can be very subtle, and one form of this not-so-obvious prejudice is the use of micro-aggressions. According to Ashley Eisenmenger from Access Living, these are the “everyday verbal or behavioral expressions that communicate a negative slight or insult in relation to someone’s gender identity, race, sex, disability, etc.” Although there may be no ill intent, many still participate in this type of discrimination. It may be in the way someone jokingly calls a friend a “retard” simply because they say something that doesn’t make sense, or it can be saying that someone is acting “bipolar” because of their abrupt mood swings. Even proclaiming that one has “OCD” just because they’re very clean and organized is another way of using these micro-aggressions. While people may be unaware that saying these words is actually hurtful to others, that doesn’t mean it’s not a problem.
The recent incident in the Plantation Bay Resort in Cebu is also another key example of Ableism in action. On December 6, 2020, Mai Pages posted about her experience as a guest at the resort with her son, Fin, who is a child with autism. She wrote about how ashamed she felt when she and her son were told by lifeguards to leave the pool area because they were being “too loud”, which was apparently against Plantation Bay’s rules, when in reality, Fin’s screaming was his way of expressing joy. She left a scathing review of the location: “The plan to swim the whole morning came to a halt. I asked Fin if we could go back to the room because we weren’t allowed to squeal and be merry the special way. It’s a discriminating experience.” Pages noted that what was supposed to be an enjoyable beach getaway for her son turned into a memory she would want to wipe out. What made the already bad situation even worse was that a share-holder of the resort snapped back. Manny Gonzalez gave a reply which presented Mai Pages as an uncooperative and irresponsible mother. He even said that if they wanted to stay at the resort, then they were to abide by the rules, which in turn gained a very negative upheaval from netizens. Manny Gonzalez has since released a new apology and deleted the original response, yet it is difficult to forget the weight of his words.
Nazis, Cereal, and Nursing Homes
The second form of Ableism is systematic and institutional. Ideas, laws, and/or social norms that have been created over years of discrimination or disgust towards people with disabilities. One of the more existential and nightmarish extremes of genetic disabilities is the field of study called Eugenics. According to HISTORY, “Eugenics is the practice … of improving the human species by selectively mating people with specific desirable hereditary traits.” It aims to reduce human suffering by “breeding out” disease, disabilities, and so-called undesirable characteristics from the human population.” On the surface level, it may seem like a sensible, and even somewhat noble thing to do, but looking deeper, what does this really say about people with disabilities? Eugenics gives the impression that people with disabilities are flawed and are in need of “fixing”. As Professor Beth Haller puts it, “Usually, people exist on two ends: People either feel bad for you if you are disabled or self-aggrandize by feeling ‘lucky’ for the life they live (without the disability).” Neither of these viewpoints benefit anyone.
Nowadays, the term eugenics is commonly connected with Nazis and their ideology of creating the “perfect” Aryan race through the forceful elimination of “unfit” minority races. But eugenics was actually much more widely accepted before this time, especially in America. A major endorser of eugenics was John Harvey Kellogg, whom you may recognize is the creator of the Kellogg’s cereal brand. From 1914 to 1928, he would hold conferences dedicated to the spread and discussion of eugenics under the Race Betterment Foundation. The slow acceptance of eugenics as a concept turned into the gruesome forced sterilizations. California, and eventually thirty-three other states, would allow the sterilization of men and women in order to “avoid” the spread of mental disease and disabilities. These sterilizations would usually come to minorities and strip them of their ability to procreate. This was and is an obvious violation of our human rights and is no longer conducted.
But institutional ableism can be much more subtle. Andrew Pulrang, a disabled, free-lance writer for Forbes, says “Large institutions… and nursing homes are far less dominant than they used to be, but they are still too often the default option offered to disabled people, or imposed on them, when they need everyday help.” By mentally designating locations disabled people must go, we segregate them and isolate them.
Hospitals, Schools, Governments, and even the Media can be places for active and passive ableism. Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice, a book on ableism in real-life situations, gives examples of institutional ableism. Schools segregating disabled children from normal children, cutting funding on classroom aides, and insufficient assistive technology are just some of the ways institutions can be ableist.
Journey to the Center of It All
For the longest time, what has been seen as the problem was the disabilities in and of themselves. Well, this needs to change. The real issue is how people perceive persons with disabilities. It is in the way their view and value of a person changes simply because they have a disability. We need to collectively realize that at the very core of it all, our prejudice against persons with disability is more problematic than the actual disabilities. It all stems from both individual biases and societal forces.
So, how exactly can each one of us do our part? Well, we’ll give three simple ways.
First, educate yourself. Like many other topics, it’s difficult to apply something that you’re not fully aware about, so it’s good to do some research! This isn’t limited to do looking up something like “what is (insert disability here)” on Google. It can be through following pages of organizations that stand up against Ableism, or even asking questions to others more knowledgeable on disabilities.
Second, be careful with your words. As stated earlier, micro-aggressions and other similar expressions can be quite hurtful to these people with disabilities. In the same way, “baby-talking” them is also degrading. Strive to maintain an attentive vocabulary-- one that keeps away from being offensive-- whether or not people with disabilities are around you and listening. Keep it as a practice.
Lastly, when you come to know a person with a disability, talk to them. Although a group of people around the world have disabilities, each one of them certainly has their own unique story. Some might take offense at actions others don’t, so, what each individual thinks matters. Added to that, it’s good to ask “how can I help?” whenever you find the opportunity to, while still keeping the second tip in mind. Doing so is both polite and loving.
Let’s always keep in mind that different does not mean wrong or less than. Before we even think of ways to scientifically fix diseases and disabilities, we first need to fix our mindsets. We must be careful with the words we use and the actions we display. Strive to educate yourself and see the world from the perspective of others. These people with disabilities are not to be treated as pets or babies, but as they are: humans.
Adams, M., Bell, L. A., & Griffin, P. (Eds.). (2007). Teaching for diversity and social justice (2nd ed.). Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group. Retrieved from
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Disability statistics: Information, charts, graphs and tables. (2020, March 30). Disabled World. https://www.disabled-world.com/disability/statistics/
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Impairments, activity limitations, and participation restrictions. (2020, September 16). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/disabilityandhealth/disability.html
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Onion, A., Sullivan, M., & Mullen, M. (2019, October 28). Eugenics. History. https://www.history.com/topics/germany/eugenics
Pulrang, A. (2020, October 25). Words matter, and it’s time to explore the meaning of “ableism.” Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/andrewpulrang/2020/10/25/words-matter-and-its-time-to-explore-the-meaning-of-ableism/?sh=59d38b5d7162
Ravishankar, R. A. (2020, December 15). Why you need to stop using these words and phrases. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2020/12/why-you-need-to-stop-using-these-words-and-phrases
Rogers, K. (2013, December 16). Ableism. Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/ableism
Vilog, D. (2020, December). The plantation bay incident confirms it: The Philippines is still ableist AF. Scout. https://www.scoutmag.ph/opinion/plantation-bay-incident-apology-gaslighting-ableism-autism-daneav-20201209