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What is ableism and why does it matter to you?

Ableism turns disabled people into “others” – and helps non-disabled people stay “normal”.

Through the hashtag #AbleismTellsMe different disabled people told their stories aboutHeadshot of Rebecca Maskos discrimination. What exactly is Ableism? And what is the difference between that and hostility to disabled people? This is what Rebecca Maskos, from Germany, tries to explain in this article. It was originally published on October 26th 2021 in the magazine “Die Neue Norm” (The New Norm), which has kindly allowed us to republish. The magazine The New Norm wants to put the topic of disability into new contexts – from charity and welfare to being part of the mainstream society.

Rebecca Maskos was born in 1975 and lives in Berlin. She studied psychology in Bremen and disability studies in the USA. She worked on projects on disability and feminism and publishes as a freelance journalist on disability issues. She is currently writing her dissertation on ableism, autonomy, and the use of mobility aids. Rebecca has OI herself.

Able- what? Is ableism (Ableismus in German) just another fancy word in social media? The term ableism originated from the English-speaking disability movement. It is connected to the word “ability”, and has also been used in Germany the last 10 years or so. With the Twitter hashtag #AbleismTellsMe, the term Ableism has now also made it into German mainstream media. In the beginning of September, the American disabled student Kayle Hill tweeted about her experiences with discrimination under #AbleismTellsMe. And after this happened, the hashtag went through the roof, especially in Germany. In hundreds of tweets, people reported some blatant experiences of exclusion and disadvantage, an expression of how society deals with disabilities.


But does this really require a new Anglicism? Is ableism something new, different or does it refer to experiences that we disabled people know well enough – summarized under the term hostility towards or discrimination of disabled people (which has its own, common term in German, “Behindertenfeindlichkeit”)? Yes and no. Ableism is nothing new at first glance. Ableism shows itself when we do not appear as a competent subject at eye level, when we seem invisible and when decisions about ourselves are made over our head. When our friends and partners are addressed as our “guardians”. Ableist thought patterns attribute everything we do back to our disabilities: We are in a bad mood, grumpy and lonely or curious, friendly and nice, supposedly because we are disabled. Or we do everything despite our disabilities – our lives are solely directed towards overcoming our disabilities.

Ableism makes us as complex persons, disappear behind a wall of stereotypical assumptions. For example, that our disability makes us bitter and depressed, and that it therefore takes a lot of courage to lead a “completely normal life”. Or that we are helpless and incapable in all areas of life. Ableist is the recognition that we “go out anyway”, “we’re also at the party”, “don’t let our handicap hold us back”, or “stand up to it”. However, the resentment we get for disabled parking spaces, ID cards for the severely disabled and additional vacation days is also a form of ableism. It also include questions of whether our life is worth living at all and whether we are not primarily a burden for our families.

A broad spectrum of ideas and thoughts come together under the catchphrase ableism. The overlap with disability hostility is evident. The hatred and violence that people with disabilities then and now face are in fact hostility to the disabled. Also the question of how many “care cases” a society still wants to afford, or whether, in times of scarce resources in the health care system, one does not have to prioritize which lives we save and which we don’t. The term hostility towards the disabled hits the devaluation of disabled lives in all its sharpness. And yet it makes sense if the term ableism stands by its side.


Firstly, the practice of how people deal with disability is not always hostile. Often it comes across as rather friendly, as congratulations on the “courage to face life”, as the exuberant, not always helpful help in everyday life or in the form of well-meant tips on how to easily get rid of chronic pain or allergies and asthma. Secondly, ableism is broader than hostility towards disabled people. Like racism and sexism, the term not only depicts the practice in dealing with a group, but also the social conditions and structures that produce this practice. Ableism is not only evident in weird comments or in petting a person on the head, but also in the stairs without a ramp, in the missing elevator, in the funds that organizers simply do not want to raise for sign language interpretation, live streaming or plain language. The term hostility towards disabled people can also suggest that it is sufficient to simply change your own attitude – namely into one that is “disabled-friendly”.

It is no coincidence that terms such as “xenophobia” are used less often. Because terms like ableism, racism and sexism express better that those are not only patterns of thought and action, but also an expression of relations of social power that affect all people – in very different ways. White men, for example, hardly ever need to deal with the unreasonable demands from a racist and sexist society and therefore often find it difficult to recognize these mechanisms at all. Also non-disabled people, can appear privileged in this context: They are spared for the energy-consuming struggle with barriers and prejudices. Disabled people, on the other hand, don’t just have to deal with the other’s ableism. In addition, there is also the risk of internalizing the ableism that comes from the outside. The risk exists, that at some point you will see yourself as inferior, as a burden for society.


Photo from our interview with Jeanette Chedda

There are a lot of parallels between ableism, sexism, racism and similar “-isms”. But there are also differences. An identity as a non-disabled person is fragile. In old age, at the latest, we are all right in the middle of a disabled life: No life ends without impairments. And in the vast majority of cases, we all have temporary minor and major impairments in the course of life. We all must face experiences with impairments – with illnesses, with dependencies on others, with the need for help, but without being automatically disabled as a result. Nevertheless: A serious accident is enough, and then you are suddenly part of the “Disabled People’s Club”.

Perhaps that is the reason why disability creates so much fear and insecurity? All of us, are actually closer to a life with disabilities, than most people would like to think about. Acting ableist can be an attempt to keep an uncomfortable truth at a distance: Nobody is inviolable. Ableism can turn disabled people into “the others” and keep them at a distance. The supposedly safe normalcy does not have to be shaken in the first place…

Written by Rebecca Maskos

First published in OIFE-Magazine 3-2021

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