The term ableism was coined to be similar to sexism and racism

To read on Nordic Network on Disability Research website:

Ableism and Ability Studies

Gregor Wolbring, Associate professor, Dept. of Community Health Sciences, Program in Community Rehabilitation and Disability Studies, University of Calgary, Canada, Email[email protected]

As I see it, the theoretical framework and analytical lens of Ableism is a gift from the disabled people rights movement and disability studies to the social sciences and humanities.

I self-identify as a disability studies scholar, a science and technology studies scholar and an ability-cultural researcher (cultural research on ability preferences exhibited by individuals and societies). Ability expectations and preferences are one dynamic through which members of a group judge others and themselves and their lives. Ability preferences and judgments are at the root of many rules of behaviours and customs.  Every disability studies scholar is in my eyes also an ability-cultural researcher.

The term ableism evolved from the disabled people rights movements in the United States and Britain during the 1960s and 1970s, and is of course central to disability studies scholars. The term ableism was coined to be similar to sexism and racism, where a group could question certain negative behaviours towards themselves. Ableism used in this way allows for highlighting the disablement and disablism (Miller, Parker, & Gillinson, 2004) disabled people experience because their abilities do not fit the cultural preference for species-typical normative ability functioning and who therefore are labelled as ‘impaired’, as not able enough, as not able in the right way.

Ableism, however, is not limited to the species-typical/sub species-typical dichotomy.  With recent science and technology advances, and envisioned advances to come we see an ableism becoming visible that favours beyond species-typical abilities over species-typical and sub species-typical abilities. Furthermore ableism is not limited to body linked ability discourses.

Every person cherishes certain abilities and finds others non-essential. Some people cherish the ability to buy a car, some the ability to mountain climb, some the ability to perform academic work and others manual work. Some social structures are structured around GDPism (the ability to produce a GDP), efficiency, productivity and consumerism (the ability to consume), others could be organized around equity and empathy or any set of abilities. The list of abilities one can cherish is endless with new and different abilities added to this or that list all the time. The cherishing of abilities happens on the level of individuals as well as the level of households, communities, groups, sectors, regions, countries and cultures. There is a frequent trade-off between numerous abilities.

Ableism as such does not have to be negative – it just highlights that one favours certain abilities and sees them as essential. A culture may choose to cherish the ability to maintain equity for one’s members and members of a society could see this as positive. As a society one could decide that the ability to act as an individual without concern for the fate of others is a positive or a negative. What abilities are seen as essential and positive or which abilities or lack thereof are seen as negative are negotiated. In some ways disabled people and disability studies scholars negotiate with the world to see that the form of ableism that expects species-typical functioning with its accompanying disablism is negative.

Ableism in its general form leads to an ability based and ability justified understanding of oneself, one’s body and one’s relationship with others of one’s species, other species and one’s environment (Wolbring, 2011). We see increasingly ableism that plays itself out between generations of the young and elderly. We see a break between the young and the old where the elderly experience ageism (negative perception and/or treatment and lack of support of the elderly) due to a decrease of abilities of their youth and at the same time the perception that the remaining abilities the elderly hold have no particular use for the young or even society at large. And we see youthism where even the elderly try to regain the abilities of youth in order to escape ageism. Ableism influences how humans judge and relate to each others. What abilities one favours and what ableisms one exhibits is a dynamic that also defines human-nature relationship (anthropocentrism versus biocentrism), which in turn has an impact on which strategies and priorities are envisioned and employed for gaining water, energy climate and disaster security and avoiding insecurity, (an example is the recent legal developments in Ecuador and Bolivia that give rights to nature).

Given the above the concepts of ‘Ability inequity’, inequality, equity and equality, ability security and self-identity security (Wolbring, 2010) have enormous analytical currency for all kind of discourses. I coined a couple of years ago the term Ability Studies (Wolbring, 2008) which I defined, among others, to investigate: (a) the social, cultural, legal, political, ethical and other considerations by which any given ability may be judged, and which may lead to favouring one ability over another; (b) the impact and consequence of favouring certain abilities and rejecting others; (c) the consequences of ableism in its different forms, and its relationship with and impact on other isms.  I believe it to be an essential area of inquiry made possible through the initial development of the ableism term by the disabled people rights movement and the disability studies field. It’s up to the ‘others’ to see its value.

Note

A slightly different version was published before on the blog of the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social SciencesVP Equity Issues series on diversity, creativity and innovation http://blog.fedcan.ca/2011/06/17/ableism-disability-studies-and-the-academy/

Reference List 

Miller, P., Parker, S., & Gillinson, S. (2004). Disablism How to tackle the last prejudice DEMOS.Retrieved February 10, 2012 from http://www.demos.co.uk/files/disablism.pdf

Wolbring, G. (2008). Why NBIC?  Why Human Performance Enhancement? Innovation; The European Journal of Social Science Research, 21(1), 25-40.

Wolbring, G. (2010). Ableism and Favoritism for Abilities Governance, Ethics and Studies: New Tools for Nanoscale and Nanoscale enabled Science and Technology Governance. In Susan Cozzens & Jameson M.Wetmore (Eds.), The Yearbook of Nanotechnology in Society, vol. II: The Challenges of Equity and Equality. New York: Springer.

Wolbring, G. (2011). Ableism and energy security and insecurity. Studies in Ethics, Law, and Technology, 5(1), Article 3. Retrieved from http://www.bepress.com/selt/vol5/iss1/art3/

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To a better understanding of ableism:

Ableism and Ability Glossary

Just a starting point

Ableism how it started

The term ableism evolved from the disabled people rights movements in the United States and Britain during the 1960s and 1970s to question and highlight the prejudice and discrimination persons experienced whose body structure and ability functioning was labelled as ‘impaired’ as sub species-typical. Ableism of this flavor is a set of beliefs, processes and practices that favors species-typical normative body structure based abilities and labels sub-normative species-typical biological structures as deficient, as not able to perform as required. The disabled people rights discourse and scholars of the academic field of disability studies questions the assumption of deficiency intrinsic to below the norm labeled normative body abilities and the favoritism for normative species-typical body abilities see for example Campbell, Overboe, Carlson, and the Media and Culture Issue in the bibliography section of this blog
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However Ableism is one of the most societally entrenched and accepted “isms” and it exists in many forms such as biological structure based ableism, cognition based ableism, ableism inherent to a given economic system, and social structure based ableism (Wolbring 2008).

Ableism general:

A set of beliefs, processes and practices that produce based on ones abilities a particular kind of understanding of oneself, one’s body and one’s relationship with others of one’s species, other species and one’s environment and includes one being judged by others. Ableism reflects the sentiment of certain individuals, households, communities, groups, sectors, regions, countries and cultures to cherish and promote certain abilities such as productivity and competitiveness over others such as empathy, compassion and kindness (favoritism for abilities). Ableism exhibits favouritism for certain abilities that are projected as essential while at the same time labelling real or perceived deviation from or lack of these essential abilities as problematic. Ableism can lead to consequences such as disablism (Miller, Paul, Parker, Sophia, and Gillinson, Sarah (2004).the negative treatment of the people who do not have the essential abilities. Ableism can lead or contribute to the justification of various other isms such as sexism, species-ism, racism, ageism, caste-ism, anti environmentalism, consumerism, competitiveness-ism, GDP-ism and other isms.

Beyond Species Typical form of Ableism

A set of beliefs, processes and practices that perceive the improvement of functioning of biological structures beyond typical boundaries as essential. This version of ableism, sees all species-typical biological structures as limited, defective and in need of constant improvement beyond biological structure typical boundaries (see Wolbring’ s papers in the bibliography)

Ability/Ableism Studies
investigates: (a) the social, cultural, legal, political, ethical and other considerations by which any given ability may be judged, which leads to favouring one ability over another; (b) the impact and consequence of favouring certain abilities and rejecting others; (c) the consequences of ableism in its different forms, and its relationship with and impact on other isms; (d) the impact of new and emerging technologies on ableism and consequent favouritism towards certain abilities and rejection of others; and (e) identification of the abilities that would lead to the most beneficial scenario for the maximum number of people in the world (see Wolbring’ s papers in bibliography).

Ableism Ethics
Ethics of Ableism/Ableism Ethics is a framework of standards and values that (a) guide beliefs, processes and practices that produces based on ones abilities a particular kind of understanding of oneself, one’s body and one’s relationship with others of one’s species, other species and one’s environment and includes one being judged by others; (b) guide the favouritism for certain abilities and how one decide which abilities to favour over others; and (c) guide the reactions towards humans and other biological entities that are seen -real or perceived- to lack these essential abilities. The study of the Ethics of Ableism/Ableism Ethics, also includes (a) the study of those standards and values, incorporating the perspectives of many different groups especially of the people labelled as lacking certain ‘essential’ abilities or labelled as exhibiting ‘as negative seen abilities’; (b) the impact assessment of different forms of ableism onto different ethics theories and ethical principles including health ethics theories and their use to govern science and technology and health research, care and policy; and (c) identification of ethical actions that flow from a favouritism for certain abilities (Wolbring, 2008).

Ableism Governance
Governance of Ableism/Ableism Governance is about how we govern ableism, the favouritism for certain abilities and the reaction towards non favoured abilities. This field is seen as an essential tool to help address existing and future challenges in the governance of science and technology and many other fields such as health policy (Wolbring 2008).

Ability/Ableism security
that one is accepted, and is able to live one’s life with whatever set of abilities one has, and that one will not be forced to have a prescribed set of abilities to live a secure life (Wolbring 2007).

Self-identity security’ could be seen as a subset of personal security and means that one is accepted with one’s set of abilities and that one should not be forced (physically or by circumstance) to accept a perception of oneself one does not agree with (e.g. one is not expected to have the ability to walk and is seen as a ‘deficient product’ if one cannot walk (Wolbring 2007).

Ableism Foresight: To anticipate and understand shifting social dynamics enabled by advancing sciences and technologies (Wolbring 2008).

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