Ableism. If you don’t know what this word means yet, I’m guessing you are probably not disabled. According to the dictionary, ableism is “discrimination or prejudice against disabled people.” Being disabled myself, I, of course, think this is horrible, but I wonder, was there ever a time without ableism, discrimination, or a prejudice against the disabled?
If we look at the beginnings of humanity, it is easy to realize that what gave humans their value was their physicality. It would be best if you had the ability to walk and use your hands, fingers, or arms to hunt, build shelter, or gather. Of course, we know that there were people born with disabilities and people who acquired disabilities back then. Still, due to the necessity of physicality, it created a hierarchy of disabilities. Or ableism amongst disabled people themselves. When a person was only blind, deaf, or nonverbal had more value than someone that could not get up, walk or use their hands and fingers. We should remind ourselves this was a time when we did not know why people were disabled, and still, a level of ableism existed.
However, let’s say you couldn’t get up or walk, but you could make bowls with your hands, then you would be the person that made bowls for your tribe. Despite not knowing the how and why people were born or acquired disabilities, it seems that the concept of ableism became more ingrained in us as we learned more about why people were disabled. We were ignorant, and yet we still found a way to include disabled people in our communities.
As we moved out of the “tribal” way of living, we began to create more ideas about human rights and who should have them. The Code of Hammurabi, a Babylonian document from 1760 BC, has some of the earliest evidence of rules and punishments for people who violated women’s, men’s, children’s, and slaves’ rights. We were still practicing what we now call ableism, but at the same time, we were beginning to understand that it was wrong to mistreat other people just because they were not like us. However, we had not even begun to think about how a disabled people should have the same rights as non-disabled people. Again, due to the necessity of physicality and the lack of knowledge of why people were born or why they acquired disabilities still existed, we continued to create a society that adopted ableist ideas out of pure ignorance.
This ignorance grew, and humanity continued to ingrain ableist ideas into the way we think. European colonization began to spread worldwide, and ableism and racism began to be set in place, enforced by beauty standards. Europeans were not only creating the means for themselves but were also creating them for other cultures that were not their own. Lighter skin and the most proportional bodies were considered beautiful, and as the world embraced these ideas, ableism, racism, and colorism were becoming more ingrained into our mindsets.
Humanity continued to progress as we entered the 19th century. Towards the end of the century, we began passing ableist laws like the ones called the “Ugly Laws.” If you were diseased, maimed, disfigured, mutilated, or considered unsightly or disgusting, you were defined as being “ugly,” and you could be arrested or fined. These laws were not wholly reversed until 1990, well into the 20th century.
As we entered the 20 century, the world began to look completely different. We started creating huge buildings, asphalt streets, and concrete sidewalks. We created a world that was utterly inaccessible to disabled people. The first modern wheelchairs were invented in the 1930s, and physically disabled people started to become more visible to everyone than before. This is perhaps what led to ableism violating the human rights of disabled people in so many different ways.
Medical procedures were performed that were essentially torture in the name of “curing” people that had mental illnesses or cognitive disabilities. Ideas of eugenics ram rampant, and we believed we could improve the genetic quality of humans by refusing to operate on children with birth defects and letting them die, sterilizing disabled people, so they did not give birth to humans with imperfect genetics, and institutionalizing them without an evaluation. These practices were becoming normal to us.
The beginning of the 20th century saw the rise of the cruel practice of institutional corrections of disability. In the latter part of this century, disabled people began to demand rights. We finally started to move away from the ableist ideas that had been ingrained in us for so long. In 1940 we began to see progress in including disabled people in our communities. The first curb cuts were installed in Kalamazoo, Michigan, as part of a project to increase the employment of veterans that were disabled. The National Federation of the Blind was formed. The first cross-disability national organization to end job discrimination, The American Federation of the Physically Handicapped, began.
As decade by decade passed in the 20th century, we saw more and more inclusion of disabled people. The 70s brought us one of the most important acts for human rights. The 504 sit-in. This was the longest sit-in in American history to date. The sit-in included Disabled and nondisabled People to force the Carter administration to pass the 504 rehabilitation act into law. A law that said no federal-funded program could discriminate against disabled people.
They succeeded, and as Kitty Cone, One of the activists that took part in the 504 sit-in, said, this was “ the public birth of disability rights movement… For the first time, Disability was looked at as an issue of civil rights rather than an issue of charity and rehabilitation at best, pity at worst“. This was when the ablest ideas we had continued to tell ourselves were true started to break. Ableism did not disappear, but disabled people were finally beginning to realize they had human rights too! This eventually led to disabled people gathering together to fight for the American Disabilities Act, the first federal law to give disabled people their own rights, which finally passed in 1990.
Has Ableism been completely eradicated? No! We are not anywhere near that mindset yet. It has been around since the beginning of life, but unlike rights for BIPOC, LGBTQ, gender equality, and poverty, the rights of disabled people are still very young. Over time, as science, technology, and our knowledge grows, the idea of how we treat the disabled people in our communities has gotten better, but not enough. I cannot explain why. I can only see what has existed through the evidence that history has left for us.
As disabled people, it is completely normal to be angry and frustrated by the violation of our rights as humans. However, we must give ourselves time to process the anger and frustration we feel, and we also need to realize that humans are also imperfect animals. Any single person can be the most kind in one moment and then do something that could be considered horrific in another. If someone is not disabled, they do not realize the obstacles we must overcome to run a mundane daily errand like going to the grocery store. And the only way they can know is when we let them know. It is up to us to speak up when our rights are being violated. If that doesn’t happen, then we will never be recognized as being human, and nondisabled people will remain blissful in their ignorance.