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Ableism: Etiquette and Examples

What does Ableism look like?

To a person with a disability there is a finite number of resources. There is usually only one accessible stall in the washroom, there are a handful of accessible or handicap parking spots at a store, and there is only one or two elevators in a building.

One of the most common forms of Ableism is using an accessible resource without thinking about it, or believing that no people with disabilities are around so it is free to use. 

Accessible Washroom/Stall. Of course, if all the stalls in the washroom are occupied, the accessible stall is there use.  But if you don't really need the accessible stall and you choose to use it instead of other stalls that are available, you are taking a resource away from a person with a disability. And for many people with a disability, a regular washroom stall is not an option to use.

Accessible parking spots. When using an accessible parking spot even for just a minute, you are taking a spot away from someone who needs it. They may not be able to go into the store without having a spot right up front. Even those who may look 'typical', if they have been given a handicap permit, have a valid reason to use those spaces.  Figure 1.

Elevator hogging. There are many reasons for using an elevator, however before entering the elevator, especially a busy one, check that a person with a disability is not being passed over. There are cases when a large crowd is waiting for an elevator and a person with a disability is made to wait for the next elevator.

Figure 1. Ableism Example

Assumption of competence based on a person’s appearance of diagnosis. A person’s opinion or wants may be dismissed because of their disability. A person’s intelligence or comprehension may be ignored because of their appearance or their ability to communicate.

Inaccessible events or places.  Many events don’t provide accommodation or accessibility for people with disabilities. For wheelchair accessible seats in theatres or stadiums, there is often only one regular seat beside it when a person using a wheelchair may want to sit with friends or family. Some venues want proof that a person using a wheelchair accessible spot actually needs it. Some places like restaurants have inaccessible front entries and can only accommodate mobility users by taking them through the kitchen.  

Not for us without us. People with disabilities are often left out of conversations at every level on policies that affect them. Ask or involve the people affected before policies, procedures, and environments are planned.

Asking when they will be cured. People with disabilities are not looking to be cured or fixed and they will not appreciate you asking. Do not suggest they try a different diet, exercise, vitamin, treatment or therapy. They will not appreciate being asked about how many surgeries or treatments they have had.

Asking what happened. People with disabilities want to be treated the same as everyone else. They also don’t want to explain their medical history to everyone who asks, nor are they a teachable moment. Sometimes children are encouraged by their parents to ask a person with a disability in about themselves so the children become more comfortable.

Disrespect. Ignoring a person with a disability’s preferences for assistance or choosing to help a person without their permission is objectifying them. People with disabilities, especially those who may use a mobility aid, often do not need help. You should not touch them, touch, move or lean on their mobility aids without permission.


Inaccessible environments. A ramp doesn't necessarily make the building accessible, especially if the a ramp is an afterthought. Buildings may not have accessible bathroom facilities, accessible aisle space, or accessible doorways. There may not be accessible signage (braille, audible) in public spaces.

Underrepresentation or misrepresentation in all elements in society. TV shows and movies rarely write in people with disabilities and when they do, it is as token characters. When casting for roles with disability, Hollywood casts abled actors and actresses. Fiction writers rarely write characters with disabilities and when they do they often do so stereotypically. News, written or broadcast, portray people with disabilities as victims to pity or as inspirational characters for overcoming everyday experiences.

Lack of conversation or acknowledgement. While racism and sexism are part of school curriculum, disability studies are still rarely mentioned in education. Historical figures who had disabilities are not mentioned or their disability is written out of their biography. For example, Franklin Delano Roosevelt's use of a wheelchair is usually only briefly mentioned. Most biographies don’t mention Thomas Edison was deaf.

People with disabilities are not inspirational, brave or special. These terms are often used to describe people with disabilities when they accomplish something that is mundane or every day. Tthese terms say that you are surprised that a person with a disability is able to get out and live their lives the same as everyone else.


Interacting with people with disabilities

Don't make assumptions about a person or their disability. It is not for you to determine what a person wants, feels, needs, can or can’t do. If you are unsure about what assistance to offer, how to help, what to do, how to do it or what terminology or language to use, ask. The person with the disability is your best resource. It is also important to remember that what works for one person may not work for another.

Ask before you help. Always receive permission before you help a person with a disability. What you view as struggling might be their way of getting things done. If you do get permission to help, ask the person how they want the help. You can actually cause more problems by helping if the person is not expecting the help.

Be aware of personal space. Mobility aids are part of their user’s personal space. Moving, touching, or leaning on a mobility aid is the same as moving a person without their permission and can interfere with a person’s safety.

Talk directly to the user. While a person with a disability may have friends, family, or a helper with them, don’t talk to them. You don’t need to ignore the others, but focus on the person you are interacting with.

Speak normally.  If you are talking to an adult with a disability, talk to them the same as you would any other non-disabled adult. If you are talking to a child, make sure you speak to them the same as you would a non-disabled child of the same age. There is no need to talk louder or slower (unless requested), and while a person with a disability may have troubles communicating verbally, don’t assume that is connected to their ability to understand.

You can also use normal language like look and see without offending a person who is blind. When introducing a person with a disability to others, just use their name. There is no reason to include their disability in the introduction.

Default to "people-first" language when talking about people with disabilities. This means putting the emphasis on the person and not their abilities, mobility devices, medical diagnosis or condition. Language has power and older descriptions of people with disabilities continue stereotypes and act as attitudinal barriers. A person has a condition, they are not the condition. A person uses or needs a mobility device, they are not confined or imprisoned by it. Some people prefer people-first language and others have begun reclaiming disability as part of their identity. Default to people-first or ask what someone prefers.

Avoid potentially offensive terms or euphemisms. Continuing with the people-first language; many people find the following phrases annoying or offensive: restricted to a wheelchair, victim of, suffers from, retarded, deformed, crippled, and euphemisms such as physically challenged. If you are unsure, ask the person with a disability what terminology he prefers.


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