WTF is Ableism – A Look at Ableism Through the History of Time

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.



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Welcome to DIYabled!!!

DIYabled is a nonprofit that started to educate people about disability and accessibility.

Currently DIYabled has a series called Cripstory where are you can learn about the unheard history of disability. They are purposely made sure to pick your curiosity and learn more about these people and how their contributions helped form the world we live in today. The Frankie and Pripee Show  is another series where Frankie and Pripee talk about different subjects about disability. The show was made for children but adults can learn from it too.
DIYabled’s This Crip Life is a podcast we are we have conversations the diverse group of people that make up the disability community. We talk to disabled people learn about the things they do and how they do it.
DIYabled is a grassroots nonprofit and depend on the donations from for me to keep doing the work we do. Please consider donating. Thank you.

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Roll a Mile in my Shoes

Brown skinned woman with dark brown hair. Wearing a magenta T-shirt. Sitting in a wheelchair at a table with a glass and empty plate. She is looking into her camera phone and typing something.
Photograph by Steve Milano. Priya Ray sitting at a restaurant table on a sidewalk in Asheville.
Living in a society that does not genuinely welcome you can be disheartening. I certainly don’t expect everything I talk about here to change overnight, but I hope there can be more awareness of how our actions or inactions can affect those around us. After becoming paralyzed, I knew the landscape of my life would be changed forever. Learning to maneuver physically in an able-centric world has obviously been but achievable. Although challenging, this was to be expected. What really surprised and frustrated me was how my physical disability isolated me socially; how I am regarded or disregarded when I am out in the world would affect me on a much more fundamental, emotional level. Of course, it’s hard for others to imagine each and every way a person can come to feel isolated by a single act on their part, and I understand that not all of the ways I am treated are purposeful or done with knowledge or malice. These observations are about how people’s awareness can be raised to comprehend what living with a disability is like from a first-hand perspective. The lack of independence and spontaneous transportation for disabled people creates the phenomenon of forced intimacy. We are forced to reach out to our community not to be isolated, but reaching out is not always easy. It changes the dynamic of your relationships with your family and friends. It forces you to reveal things about yourself that you don’t feel comfortable sharing and turns the dynamic of that relationship to one of sympathy and dependence rather than helping and assisting. Let’s look at some of the ways this manifests. Transportation, either public or private, is essential for everyone to have access to so they can go to work or socialize. For the most part, transportation is ability-centric. Let’s consider public transit as private transportation tends not only to be cost-prohibitive but, when a specialized vehicle is needed, you can’t just hail any old taxi going down the street. In larger urban areas like New York City, if you are nondisabled, you have access to any train or bus available and can go anywhere you need to at almost any time. But what happens when you need an elevator to get on a train? Instead of there being one at every station, you only have access at select stations, and those may not be anywhere close to where you need to end up. If you then need to use a bus, many of which are wheelchair accessible but often overcrowded, you had better hope there is space on it, and those occupying the front section are willing, without resentment, to give up their seats. When I lived in the Bay Area, The BART, while one of the more accessible public transportation systems, there is much room for improvement; I would often try to enter or exit a train platform only to find an out-of-order sign-on the station’s elevator. With no prior notice at any point of my trip. I would then be forced to get off the train, find out the elevator is broken, get back on the train, ride to the next station, get off, and ride back in the opposite direction to use the elevator on the other side of the original station where I intended to disembark in the first place. Suddenly, your trip became twice as long and ten times as frustrating as the commute of a nondisabled person. Then there is the issue of sidewalks. Some cities do not have proper sidewalks that everyone (able or not) can use to travel safely to their destination. If sidewalks do exist, there may not be curb cuts or, if there are, they are extremely damaged and impossible to use as intended. At times I must roll in the street and use the bike lanes (if they are around) to roll in the road because aside from there not being any curb cuts, I cannot use the sidewalks themselves if they are in great disrepair. I am sometimes in the way of bicyclists or unsafe near traffic. This creates a sense of both being “in the way” and not belonging to each world. A lack of space is another way disabled people are isolated. Over the past two decades, it’s been a trend for restaurants or performance spaces to open that are often too small for a wheelchair. In these places, disabled people are forced to ask complete strangers to make room so you can get to your table. Sometimes your chair is so big that you are invading their space, causing the dynamic of social interaction into one in which disabled people feel like they have to apologize for their presence and the nondisabled feel inconvenienced for having to accommodate them. The grocery store is another environment where we force disabled people to have to ask complete strangers again for assistance to reach a product, taste a sample, or even get through an aisle that is not wide enough. (The original Berkely Bowl in Berkeley, CA, and Whole Food in Asheville, NC are two incredibly inaccessible examples). Navigating an aisle filled with nondisabled people can be quite a task in and of itself, not to mention the social skills needed to ask people who are not paying attention to you to move so you can get what you want. My last observation is focused on simple awareness and mindfulness. I find that in most cases, nondisabled people unintentionally cause feelings of social isolation for disabled people without even realizing they are doing it. I remember one of the first times friends isolated me without any realization. It was in a park for someone’s birthday. Everybody that was celebrating was sitting on a small pavilion that had a step. Being in a wheelchair, I couldn’t access the space where everybody was, so I sat alone, isolated from the party. Nothing is more depressing than sitting by yourself as you watch all your friends gather in a space that is entirely inaccessible to you. As they are each other’s company without even one second of awareness that the only thing that prevented you from socializing with them was simply a step. It’s sometimes the littlest things that can get in our way and make us feel disconnected from others. What disabled people must endure every day socially is so detrimental to their state of mind. We as a society must recognize, accept, and acknowledge how we ignore, forget, or are entirely unaware of how we could be isolating disabled people. Then we will be on our way to living in a place that being truly inclusive is realized. Like this ? Then
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