Why Is Ableism So Hard To Explain?

Devin Axtman

Guest blog post by Devin Axtman. Devin is a student at the University of North Texas, studying Rehabilitation Counseling. He is from Rugby, North Dakota and lives in Denton, Texas.


Merriam-Webster defines ableism as, “Discrimination or prejudice against individuals with disabilities.”  When I tell people about ableism, people often look puzzled or say things like, “Well, most people don’t really hate people with disabilities.  Sure, sometimes people say or do horrible things, but do you really think widespread discrimination against people with disabilities exists?”  Yes I do.

My friend was asked, “Why are you using those crutches?” during a job interview.  My friend, who has a service dog was told, “Oh, I didn’t think disabled people went there.” when she was by the Honor’s Hall dorm at our college (never mind the fact she has a 4.0 GPA while getting her Master’s).  I was discouraged from taking pre-Advanced Placement classes during my Special Education meetings in high school.  I can’t prove it was my Cerebral Palsy, but I wonder if a new student without a disability would be discouraged from taking pre-AP classes.  I could write an entire blog post about insensitive or silly things people have said to me.

So why do people look puzzled or add qualifiers when you tell them about ableism  Unfortunately, ableism is very difficult to explain.  How is something seemingly so simple so hard to explain?  I have a few ideas.

People generally have low expectations for people with disabilities.  This relates back to me being discouraged from taking pre-AP classes.  Low expectations for people with disabilities are a form of ableism.  Before we moved down to Texas from North Dakota, a teacher told my mom, “The students down there will never accept Devin.  They’ll just see his cerebral palsy and he’ll never fit in.”  Did that teacher think she was being ableist?  Probably not, but this is one example of low expectations for people with disabilities.  I wonder what she would think of me graduating Summa Cum Laude with two degrees and being a semester away from my Master’s degree.


Devin Axtman

Furthermore, most people can’t fathom themselves as being hostile towards someone with a disability.  If anything, I think a lot of people feel sorry for people with disabilities.  Microaggressions towards people with disabilities are common.  I have been asked, “What did you do to yourself?” while someone points at my wheelchair.  That ableist statement assumes that I did something to earn my disability.  However, I highly doubt that person knew he was being ableist.

Finally, I feel the disability gray area that some experience contributes to ableism.  I use a wheelchair for long distances, but I can walk.  I almost got kicked out of the wheelchair seats at a football game once for standing.  I was told, “We want to make sure that people using these seats really need them.”  Thinking I didn’t really need the wheelchair seats because I can stand is a blatant form of ableism that does not account for the varied experience of disability for people in the disability gray area.  I highly doubt I would have had problems if I had sat the entire game.

Fortunately, we can all use our voice to educate others on forms of ableism and its effects.  I feel most of the time, people are unaware they are being ableist.  Thankfully, a simple change in attitude may be enough to eliminate many forms of ableism.  Maybe we cannot completely eliminate ableism, but we can change attitudes one person at a time.