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Chapter 3

Chapter 3. Justifying Ableism: Ideologies and Language

Where else do such ideas about disability as a fate worse than death originate? From childhood on, people are exposed to many stories about human variability, the causes of disability, and why some people are more deserving of opportunity than others. In contrast to the universal origins of prejudice, this chapter focuses on the intermediate origins of ableism reflected in the complex belief systems used to justify and perpetuate both privilege and oppression. The chapter begins with a review of how ideologies like Social Darwinism, Individualism, Meritocracy, and the Protestant Work Ethic provide handy explanations that can be used to make sense of status differences and discriminatory practices.

Disabled people have endured a long history of persecution, from institutionalization and forced sterilization to medical experimentation and systematic extermination (Morris 1991). How are such practices that result in persecution, economic exploitation, and hate crimes justified? Across most forms of victimization, ideological beliefs about disabled people’s deservingness of specific treatments can be found (Sherry 2016). Few people know that before World War II, over 240 000 disabled people were starved, gassed, and poisoned. Yet, these actions were not considered war crimes. Instead, they were rationalized as mercy killings intended to free families from “a lifetime of sacrifice” (Gallagher 1990). Ableist beliefs that cast disability as burdensome may be even more common when resources are scarce, or when disabled people are described as taking opportunities away from those benefiting from the way things are (Sidanius et al. 1994). Idealistic beliefs about improving society through human enhancements, designer babies, and selective abortions in the case of disability still persist today as part of the New Eugenics movement (Allen 2001).

Several contemporary and clashing ideologies underscore competing definitions of disability itself, which have significant consequences for social policy. The moral, medical, and social models of disability are analyzed in relation to theories of system justification and social dominance. This work examines how different explanatory frameworks about disability can either fortify or weaken unequal status relationships that keep some groups at the top of the social hierarchy and others at the bottom. The disability models provide for very different explanations about where the problems of disability are located, and therefore dictate very different ideas about where solutions should be sought (Altman 2001). For example, when disability is attributed to supernatural forces, people may be more likely to endorse the need for divine intervention. Whether exorcism or other religious rituals are sought may depend on whether disability is attributed to demon possession or to the workings of a merciful God whose power is revealed through prayer (Braddock and Parish 2001).

Ideological beliefs are often transmitted through popular discourse and other forms of social influence. Chapter 3 goes on to review how language and media portrayals are both used to maintain social inequalities and to challenge the status quo. For example, talk is a form of action that both reflects and creates reality. The phrase “wheelchair bound” is a violation of journalistic guidelines that caution against describing disabled people as passive and imprisoned when mobility devices could also be described as liberating. Unwanted forms of helping can result from repeatedly hearing that people are “confined to wheelchairs” (Linton 1998). Simply overhearing someone use derogatory slurs leads people to devalue those described (Blanchard et al. 1994). Similarly, if the media consistently describes people as “suffering from” disability, viewers are more likely to reflect these restricted accounts. For example, those labeled as a danger to themselves are still forcibly medicated and committed to institutions in the name of protection; an entire “tragic persons’ industry” exists for those with “special needs.” When ramps and audio captions are characterized as “special needs,” people may not identify them as civil rights. It wasn’t until disabled people started describing their problems in terms of discrimination that disability rights activism became possible (Chapter 8).

Finally, Chapter 3 highlights the shifting nature of disability descriptions and media portrayals, particularly in everyday conversations where people often gesture toward prejudice through jokes, memes, and other humorous quips. What qualifies as ableist speech is hotly debated and changes with the times. What was previously considered acceptable may later be contested as prejudicial and vice versa. For example, previously stigmatized terms like freak, gimp, mad, and crip have been reclaimed as positive expressions of pride within the disability community. Furthermore, public expressions are not always managed to avoid prejudicial talk, especially when people are motivated to verify their biased allegiances. Many people remain unclear about what counts as offensive or funny when it comes to disability, but as minority groups gain power, humor may be used to relieve tension and help people process new social arrangements. The power of disability humor can also raise awareness of the everyday insults and micro-aggressions disabled people confront (e.g. the YouTube trend “Sh*t people say to … disabled people”). Bridging the gulf between curious inquiry and offensive probes is a topic in desperate need of research informed by the experiences of disabled people who should not have to conform to normal standards or disclose their conditions just to put nondisabled people at ease. Future research is also suggested on the process by which popular discourse shifts between what was formerly considered acceptable, and what is increasingly recognized as ableist.

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