What is Ableism?

blind man using cane to navigate near stairs


In our pursuit of creating inclusive and respectful environments, especially in professional settings, we often navigate the delicate balance between being mindful of ableism and the fear of being “too politically correct.” It’s essential to understand that the core of this issue isn’t about political correctness; it’s about respecting the dignity and capabilities of individuals with disabilities.

What is Ableism?

Ableism is discrimination or prejudice against individuals with disabilities. It is defined as the discrimination of and social prejudice against people with disabilities based on the belief that typical abilities are superior. It can manifest in obvious ways like inaccessible buildings or employment discrimination, but also subtly through language and everyday interactions.

fiona demark showing how revolving door is not accessible

Understanding Political Correctness

The term “political correctness” has various interpretations, but at its heart, it’s about avoiding words or actions that exclude or harm marginalised groups. It has, however, become a contentious phrase, sometimes viewed as an overzealous limitation on speech.

The Good Intentions

Political correctness arises from a desire to respect all individuals, ensuring that language and actions do not inadvertently demean or exclude people with disabilities. It’s about fostering an environment where everyone feels valued and respected.

In our well-intentioned drive towards inclusivity, the conversation around disability often becomes a tightrope walk between genuine inclusion and stifling political correctness. While the aim of political correctness is to promote dignity and avoid offence, there’s a growing debate about whether this approach sometimes overshoots, creating environments of cautious, overly sanitised communication where open dialogue is hindered rather than helped.

stairs with a sign crossing out a wheelchair and some words in german. This could be considered ableism

The Controversy Surrounding Political Correctness

Critics argue that the pendulum has swung too far, suggesting that an overemphasis on politically correct language can:

  • Inhibit Open Dialogue: People may become so worried about saying the wrong thing that they say nothing at all, reducing opportunities for genuine interaction and understanding.
  • Create Surface-Level Changes: There’s a risk that focusing too much on language does little to address the underlying systemic barriers that affect individuals with disabilities.
  • Patronise Rather Than Empower: Over-correctness can sometimes treat individuals with disabilities as though they are not resilient or capable of handling straightforward conversations.

Finding the Balance

There needs to be a middle ground between ableism and political correctness that focuses on inclusion. Here are some tips on how to achieve that.

  • Focus on Respect and Inclusion: When modifying language or policies to be more inclusive, the goal should be genuine respect and equality, not just adherence to a set of rules.
  • Educate and Engage: Understand the reasons behind inclusive practices. Engaging in open dialogues with disabled colleagues and communities can provide deeper insights.
  • Avoid Assumptions: Being overly cautious can sometimes itself be patronising. It’s important to treat individuals with disabilities as autonomous persons, capable of speaking for themselves and making their own decisions.
  • Encourage Respectful Communication: We should strive for a language of respect and dignity without cultivating an atmosphere of walking on eggshells.
  • Focus on Action: Beyond language, we must not ignore the substantial, systemic changes needed to truly empower people with disabilities — like improving accessibility and ensuring equal opportunities.
  • Listen to Individuals with Disabilities: Ultimately, they should lead the conversation about what’s respectful and what’s not. Their voices are the ones that matter most in this discourse.

A pair of scales trying to find the balance. An analogy for finding the balance between ableism and political correctness.

Taking Actionable Steps

  • Ask for Preferences: People have different preferences about how they wish to be addressed or described. When in doubt, asking respectfully can prevent misunderstandings.
  • Continuous Learning: Stay informed about disability rights and inclusive practices. The language and norms are evolving, and staying updated helps us all respond better.

Let’s embrace a balanced approach where respect and inclusivity are the priorities, without getting caught in the pitfalls of excessive political correctness. After all, the aim is to foster an environment where everyone can thrive based on mutual respect and understanding.

As professionals dedicated to inclusivity, our challenge is to balance sensitivity with sensibility, ensuring that our focus on language does not overshadow the broader goals of equality and inclusion.