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The Relationship Between Ageism and Ableism

By Carli Friedman, CQL Director of Research

Ageism is pervasive. Ageist stereotypes frame older adults as incapable, dependent, and lacking in self-determination. In a lot of ways those stereotypes are similar to ableist ones about people with disabilities, who are commonly portrayed as dependent, less capable, and unable.

The aim of this study was to explore occupational therapy (OT) students’ implicit (unconscious) ageism; we also explored the relationship between ageism and ableism. To do so, we analyzed the implicit age and disability attitudes of 54 occupational therapy (OT) students.

In our study, most of the participants were implicitly ageist, with most moderately or strongly preferring younger adults over older adults. We also explored the relationship between ageism and ableism. In doing so, we found that ableism played a significant role in ageism. According to our findings (see figure below), the more disability prejudice a person has, the more likely they are to be ageist. For example, a person with slight implicit ableism (0.20) is expected to have little to no implicit ageism (0.13); in contrast, someone with strong implicit ableism (0.70) is expected to have moderate implicit ageism (0.37).

The Relationship Between Implicit Ableism and Ageism

Graph that shows as implicit disability attitudes increase, so do implicit age attitudes

“Older adults are commonly considered incapable and dependent, which parallels ableist conceptualizations of people with disabilities, where there is an emphasis on impairment, dependence, and inability, rather than a focus on the whole person and environmental barriers… Aging decline and disability are ubiquitous and inevitable, but neither should be the cause for a therapist to think differently of a person’s potential to participate in meaningful life activities” (Friedman & VanPuymbrouck, 2021, pp. 12-14).

This article is a summary of the following journal manuscript: Friedman, C., & VanPuymbrouck, L. (2021). Ageism and ableism: Unrecognized biases in occupational therapy students. Physical & Occupational Therapy In Geriatrics, 39(4), 354-369.