By Carli Friedman, CQL Director of Research
Ableism is extremely common, in fact, our research has found that most people are prejudiced against people with disabilities. Modern day ableism operates a bit differently than it did historically. While old-fashioned ableism was more overt and blatant, for example sterilization, mass institutionalization, etc., modern ableism is more subtle and can be less obvious. These changes in how ableism operates mean we need new ways to research and study modern forms of ableism. For this reason, the purpose of this study recently conducted by CQL | The Council on Quality and Leadership was to develop and validate a new measure of modern prejudice – The Symbolic Ableism Scale – aimed at examining people who are high in both conscious (explicit) and unconscious (implicit) prejudice.
Our findings revealed the Symbolic Ableism Scale is made up of four different components or factors: 1) individualism; 2) recognition of continuing discrimination; 3) empathy for people with disabilities; and 4) excessive demands. Although symbolic ableists recognize there is still discrimination against people with disabilities and have some empathy toward people with disabilities, symbolic ableists score high in terms of individualism, including the idea that if people with disabilities try hard enough they can succeed. They also are more likely to believe people with disabilities produce excessive demands on the system and demand special favors.
While the focus of our study was to validate the Symbolic Ableism Scale, we also examined differences in symbolic ableism scores across participant groups. In doing so, we found that clinical professionals often scored high in terms of individualism, particularly compared to the other participant groups. Individualizing disability is problematic because it blames the person, rather than recognizing environmental, social, and political impacts, for their disadvantages. It also creates unobtainable expectations and ignores systemic barriers and discrimination that people with disabilities face.