Ableism: An Ideology of Misunderstanding Than of Discrimination

As anyone even vaguely tied to the Disabled Community, or who just has an interest, would be aware: ableism is a very real, commonly-occurring phenomenon. I just googled the definition of the word ‘Ableism’ and got a whole lot of links to dictionary definitions about how it is ‘discrimination against disabled people.’ Personally, I don’t like this definition and I have one fundamental reason: it’s too specific.

When you hear ‘discrimination’ images of demarcated seating or something similar undoubtedly appeared. While disabled people often face being discriminated against, I feel referring to Ableism as discrimination towards them is too narrow-minded. Ableism, to me, isn’t Discrimination but Misunderstanding.

I’ve often heard that Ableism can be unconscious. I agree. That said, I think that in order to truly discriminate against someone there has to be conscious of it on some level. Yes, a person’s behaviour might lead to a feeling of being discriminated against even though that wasn’t the person’s intention. Since, for me at least, discrimination has to fundamentally stem from intent one cannot have entirely positive intentions and still be seen a discriminatory. From my standpoint, then, is that discrimination can be a form of Ableism but Ableism is not a form of discrimination.

I’m not saying, though, that Ableism is not offensive. I’ve noticed recently, for example, that when people meet me for the first time I often receive a mediocre handshake by comparison to others in the room. Given that those individuals were able to deliver a firm handshake, the only conceivable reason I can come up for this is that I’m in a wheelchair. At the same time, though, I can see that ‘Limp-Handshake Man’ meant no offence by their handshake – they don’t see me any less of a person than the others. Is it discriminatory, then, or just a misunderstanding?

Since for arguably good reasons, wheelchairs are associated with fragility it is understandable how someone might not want to cause more damage to someone that might well be perceived as ‘more likely to break.’ In that sense, I think the limp handshake is rather considerate. To counter this, then, I usually give a firm handshake in response indicating that I am, in fact, not so easily broken. Of course, this can lead to rather awkward situations where someone touches my hand and I nearly crush theirs by comparison. Assuming the rather common perception of ‘wheelchair = weak,’ I find that ‘Limp-Handshake Man’ is being rather considerate, albeit in a somewhat misguided way.

Assuming the rather common perception of ‘wheelchair = weak,’ I find that ‘Limp-Handshake Man’ is being rather considerate, albeit in a somewhat misguided way. Considering that discrimination is, fundamentally, inconsiderateness I find it hard to think that ‘Limp-Handshake Man’ is discriminating against me. If anything, they are going out of the way not to by thinking what might be the safest course of action to take.

Still, I know people who would deem the scenario of a ‘wet’ handshake as Ableist and I’d have to agree with them. It’s Ableist because people have this misunderstanding that your disability makes you fragile thereby making a limp handshake the kindest option. The fact remains, though, that it stems from a misunderstanding more than it does a discriminatory undertone.

While discrimination can undoubtedly be a form of Ableism discrimination is not the sum-total of Ableism. A better definition for ‘Ableism,’ perhaps, would be something along the lines of ‘misunderstandings about disabled people and/or the Disabled Community.’

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