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Many Disability Professionals Don’t Understand Ableism

By Carli Friedman, CQL Director of Research

While ableism is really common, including among disability professionals, a lot of people are ableist without knowing it. It’s really hard to stop being ableist if you don’t understand that what you are doing or saying is ableist. In order to stop being ableist, one of the first steps is understanding what ableism is and how it works. That’s why we conducted this research study to examine what disability professionals know about ableism. To do so, we had 347 disability professionals define ableism and we analyzed their definitions using content analysis.

What Disability Professionals Got Right

Many disability professionals described ableism as discrimination and differential treatment where nondisabled people are privileged and disabled people are portrayed as outside the ‘norm’.

A number of disability professionals mentioned individualization and the key role it often plays in ableism. Individualization is the system where disabled people are portrayed as needing to be ‘fixed’ and are seen as responsible for their own situation. When disability is individualized, environmental and systemic barriers are ignored.

Others described the ways microaggressions, such as jokes, remarks, and assumptions, and ableist language can be harmful to disabled people. A few disability professionals also talked about how environments and systems often oppress disabled people, especially multiply marginalized disabled people.

What Disability Professionals Got Wrong

While disability professionals got a lot of things about ableism right, they got some things wrong too; sometimes they even expressed ableist ideas themselves without realizing. For example, while some disability professionals used ableist language to describe disability, there were others who wouldn’t even say the word disability. When people avoid saying ‘disability’ it’s because of their underlying assumption that disability is negative – this is actually ableist. This also ignores that disabled people are a community and disability is an identity.

It was very common for disability professionals to frame disability as related to either inability or ability – focusing on what people cannot or can do. Many of these professionals thought that disabled people were discriminated against because of their inability to achieve things. This is problematic because it assumes that disabled people are lower in ability. It also assumes disability is all about if a person can achieve something. This is not only not true, it also individualizes disability, blaming the person for their situation, ignoring the many barriers that are placed in people’s ways.

When defining ableism, there were some disability professionals that only focused on nondisabled people, often about how nondisabled people were favored, and they didn’t even talk about the impact on disabled people themselves. There were others who (falsely) believed that only disabled people with visible disabilities were discriminated against.

Some disability professionals also thought only nondisabled people could be biased against disability. While nondisabled people are more ableist than disabled people, because of how prevalent ableism is in our society, many disabled people internalize those messages and are biased against disability as well. They may direct this bias towards themselves or others in the disability community.

Did Disability Professionals Actually Know What They Thought They Knew?

In addition to asking disability professionals to define ableism, we also asked them to tell us if they knew what ableism was (self-report). We compared their self-reported knowledge to their actual knowledge (as determined by our analysis of their definitions). When we did so, we found many disability professionals that believed they knew what ableism was, didn’t really or only sort of knew what it was. While 72% of disability professionals said they knew what ableism was, only 48% of disability professionals actually did. So not only did less than half of disability professionals understand ableism, many had a false confidence when it comes to their knowledge about ableism.

Self-Reported versus Actual Knowledge of Ableism

Concluding Thoughts

“Knowing disability professionals’ understandings of ableism is an important part of dismantling ableism – necessary to intervene biased attitudes. In this study, while analyzing disability professionals’ definitions of ableism, we discovered that although some disability professionals understood ableism and the nuances involved, many disability professionals did not completely understand what ableism is or the many ways it operates. In fact, sometimes the professionals’ own ableism leaked out and informed their own understandings of what ableism is… As a group that has great power over people with disabilities, it is critical that disability professionals understand ableism and its influence on interactions, relationships, environments, systems, and structures. Without the ability to do so, disability professionals will continue to reinforce ableism, especially unconsciously, and contribute to the inequities people with disabilities face” (Friedman et al., 2024, p. 8).

This article is a summary of the following journal manuscript: Friedman, C., VanPuymbrouck, L. & Gordon, Z. (2024). “Not seeing people as capable:” Disability professionals’ mis/understandings of ableism. Journal of Applied Research in Intellectual Disabilities, 37(3), e13218.