What is disablism?

In this podcast episode PhD Candidate Gagan Chhabra explains the term disablism. Discrimination against disabled people is a big problem, but not often talked about.

– Disabled people have been pushed back of the que and marginalized for too long, Gagan explains, it’s time to start a dialogue.

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Transcript of episode

GAGAN CHHABRA:

I’m not your inspirational porn, and I’m not your tragic victim. I’m just a regular disabled person who has similar hopes, desires, dreams, expectations, prejudices, who is at times fragile, who is flawed, who is frail, but at the same time is strong, resilient, hardworking, like you are.

(INTRO MUSIC):

HALLVARD:
Du hører på Viten og Snakkis. En podcast fra OsloMet.

Welcome back Gagan Chhabra.

GAGAN CHHABRA:

Hi Hallvard, nice to meet you again.

HALLVARD:

You’re doing a PhD degree here at OsloMet, and you’ve also visited this podcast once before. We called the episode “Ask, Don’t Assume”. And today we’re going to follow up a little bit. Today you’re going to teach me and our listeners, I think for many, a new -ism word. You wrote a little oped in Aftenposten, where I discovered this word and it’s abelism. And, it’s really interesting that you brought this up now in these, what shall we say, strange times and everything going on, so that’s why I thought it was really natural to invite you back and help us understand this in today’s context. But first this word ablelism.

GAGAN CHHABRA:

I think that there are lots of words which describe this phenomena, ablelism, disablelism, funkofobi, whatever you want to call it, you know, like Shakespeare back in the day said, you know, that a Rose by any other name would smell as sweet, so this concept of ableism, call it by any other name it’s, it’s equally abhorent. So the idea of this ableism is that you treat disabled people with less work, less value, just because of the fact that they have a disability, it’s based on your abilities, you have misconceptions or spurious assumptions, you other the disabled person, you treat them as a marginal category when you think that you are the norm. So it’s all based on prejudices, your conscious and unconscious biases, which you operate in which you say that, OK, this person has a disability and he or she is of less value or perhaps more value than I am. I don’t want to treat that person as an equal human being.

HALLVARD:

This smells a lot of what’s going on in the US now with the racism debate.


GAGAN CHHABRA:

Oh, yes for sure like precisely. It’s cut out from the same cloth as racism or sexism, because the idea is that you don’t treat an individual on his or her characteristics, or his or her capabilities and potentiality, but you treat them on this immutable feature perhaps, you know, if you want to call it an immutable feature, if a person has an impairment,  then you instinctively think that, Oh, this person’s life would be perhaps absolutely tragic, he or she might be childlike or dependent or might be asexual or how would he or she be living a fulfilling life. I should feel sorry for this person and all these attitudes, you know, which we harbor either explicitly or are implicitly, make us walk on the path of abelism, and we don’t even know about it that’s the issue.

As you rightly mentioned that I’ve been writing, like op-eds about this in Dagsavisen, Vårt Land, Aftenposten and also one in English. And, the idea is to bring this concept to the Norwegian vocabulary, to give the Norwegian civil society disabilities activists an opportunity to work with it, because we all encounter these attitudinal barriers, especially I’m talking about people with disabilities, there’s a lot of stigma and stereotyping attached to it.

HALLVARD:

Is it important to have a word for this?

GAGAN CHHABRA:

Yes, I think so, because if you don’t have a word, then perhaps it’s so hard to describe the problem, because you need a word to mobilize the imagination, if you will. So for instance, you know, like the idea is that we have a very decatent cartesian way of looking at the world. We look at the world in binaries, good and evil, right, and wrong, black and white, abled and disabled. And the truth is that perhaps we all, what I would call it, like many people have referred in the past as, we all are temporarily able bodied individuals. We are TABBIES. If we live long enough, there’s a high probability we become disabled. If we are just one step away from having an accident, for instance, or falling from ski or who knows like if a child is going to be born with an extra chromosome, we have to keep that in the back of the mind, we all are flawed, we all are frail, an we all share a common destiny.

So, if we are keeping this in the backdrop, then perhaps we will not create these strong binaries of ableness and disablement. We would be OK, treating the other disabled person with dignity, thinking that the other person has equal worth as I have, and we will not be othering the disabled human being. And that’s the crux of ableism.

HALLVARD:

So, give me some examples of a abelism. How does a person with a disability see this happening?

GAGAN CHHABRA:

I think that all of this happens in the backdrop mostly. People don’t even know that they are having or harboring ablelist attitudes, because we all want to think that we are kind, generous, good people. Nobody wants to walk on the street and say, “Oh, I don’t like this blind person walking on the street and I’m going to trip him”. You get my point.

HALLVARD:

I do.

GAGAN CHHABRA:

So the idea of something like this, that we all have this in the back burner in our heads, because it’s been such a long legacy of disabled people being treated in a very stigmatized, stereotypical way. And the idea is that if we assume that these people are dependent, then we will not be able to see them as, Oh, should I be dating this person, because perhaps this person is very dependent. I don’t want to be a nurse for this person because this person is on a wheelchair, for instance, for example. Like, Oh, do disabled people have higher education? How do they go? Like, for instance, like if you’re blind, how do you use a smart phone? You know, like do you have a job? Like if you’re hard of hearing, how can you manage if you’re signing? And if you are not talking properly, if you have speech impediments, can you have a job? Can you have a fulfilling life? What’s the well being cushioned? Perhaps you don’t have a similar amount of wellbeing, what I have when I can go on my trip to my cabin and I can have a full time job, and I am highly educated and I have a partner and I have a house, and I have my kids, because I am this «norm, able-bodied norm», and you my friend are the disabled, the other, the outsider, the periphery, the marginal.

HALLVARD:

So where do we start fighting ableism? Like, the way you’re describing it, Gagan, it’s so big as you say, this is, you know, in our back bones , like we don’t think about it, we don’t want to be rude, we don’t want to be nasty, but people still are. So how do we start this change? This is probably not done within this year.

GAGAN CHHABRA:

(LAUGHTER ) No, I think that this is going to be a long, long journey, and that’s why as I said, like disabled people have been marginalized for such a long period of time, and they have been viewed in a very patronizing form for a millennia. Not like 20 years, 30 years millennia. Only 30 years ago, the first civil rights act, which protected the rights of persons with disabilities was passed. It was passed in the US Americans with disabilities act. It was the first legislation which said that, listen, you should not discriminate against people with disabilities when it comes to recruitment, when it comes to giving access to education, when it comes to creating infrastructure where they could access the buildings, the movie theaters, the parks and so on, just 30 years ago.

And after that where have we reached? Like we had like Sweden coming up with an anti-discrimination law in late 90’s early 2000. We had Norway coming up with an anti-discrimination law in mid-2000. Country like India and countries from the global South have come up with laws now recently, which says that you should not discriminate against people with disabilities, because the core idea is this, that the governments and the people and society, the consciousness is now increasing a little bit, and they are saying that you cannot, should not discriminate against people with disabilities. You should not treat them as objects of charity. You should not view them as personal tragedies. You’ve got to view them as human beings, with capabilities, with aspirations, to live a fulfilling and meaningful life.

And this is just 30 years ago. So of course, it’s going to take a long, long, long bit of time. I think we’ve just started this journey, but the good thing is that, at least what’s happening in the US right now, it’s the societal consciousness has increased quite drastically on issues of race. We are kneeling in solidarity with with people, we are talking about listening to these marginalized voices, we want to explain to people that it’s not good, it’s not right to discriminate against people based on their immutable characteristics, be it race, be it gender, and I think disability is also a very, very important marginalized minority group, which has to be taken care of. As I mentioned, they’re like 17% of the Norwegian population that has a disability of some kind. And a lot of this disability is invisible. And what I mean by invisible disability is people having social anxiety, people having depression, people having chronic fatigue syndrome.

And what have you and they are so traumatised to come out and say, listen, I have a disability, because  they’re told that if you say you have a disability, we are gonna treat you in a different way. When we think that the other person that is not as prejudist as I am, we put the other person either lower or higher than what we are. For instance, often disabled people are treated as, as I mentioned, dependent, childlike, weak, and you’ve got to give them charity. So, if you have a disability are tough luck, I know your life is tragic. So, you are treating the disabled person as if the person is inferior. Even though the person might be Stephen Hawking, one of the smartest human being ever who ever lived in this, on this planet earth for instance, or you flip the coin and you suddenly say, oh my God, Stephen Hawking the best physicist.And you, and you forget that. Yes, don’t treat the other individual as a, as a pure inspiration, just because of the fact that the person has a disability.

Like me walking on the street, taking a tram by myself should not inspire no one. (CHUCKLES) Because it’s just anybody who is living in Oslo uses tram. So the point is this, that the two sides of this issue, that on one side, you are treating the disabled person as a victim, as a dependent person, as weak in a tragic form, or you flip the coin and you treat the same disabled person as an inspiration, as someone who was so special, so outstanding, so fabulous that he or she has to be looked up to. I’m just saying, why can’t we look them straight in their eyes? (LAUGHTER) And, and this is very, very important to treating people as equals and not as inspirational heroes or tragic victims.

HALLVARD:

I think we’re afraid to miss that target you’re describing now, that equal level. So people don’t say anything or don’t do anything.

GAGAN:

Oh, for sure. That’s, that’s precisely the problem that at the subconscious psyche level, we have created this binary that able-bodiedness and disablement, normal, abnormal. And when you say that you are able-bodied, you are normal. And the, and the opposite of that is something which is abhorrent, something which is not nice to have. You wanna run away from it, even though, you know, at the core of it, that disability or impairment is lurking around the corner. When you think about the barriers that disabled people encounter, the two major ones, which they think are really stopping them from realizing their potentiality are attitudinal barriers and accessibility barriers. And United States, Sweden, Norway, all the rich countries in the world have done good steps, taken good steps to sort out the accessibility barriers. Yeah, you wanna build a ramp, let’s build a ramp yeah. You want, you want the screen readers, like let’s fund the screen readers.The material problems are a lot easier to sort out. They are important. They have to be sorted out. The rights to, right to access is a integral right. We need to create universally designed processes, systems, products, and places. But at the same time, one of the most fundamental thing is the attitudes of the people, we need to work, to change, to alter, to enhance the attitude of the people. We can not just hope that, imagine if you are a politician or a policymaker sitting on the top of the government, and you think that, Ah, disabled people, when, when Mr. Abid Raja says, when he is launching the inclusion dugnad. He’s saying to all the employers, take it for the team guys, come on, take it for the team. Recruit the disabled people. What’s the signal he’s giving to the, to the employers? He’s saying disabled people are not capable. He’s saying he’s categorizing all disabled people as inefficient. Perhaps he’s thinking that disabled people are gonna be more sick. They are gonna require more effort, and he is encouraging the employers to do take disabled people out off duty or charity, or social responsibility. We don’t want the charity or red welfare or social responsibility. We want equal opportunities, access to equal opportunities. We wanna be treated as persons who have equal worth as any other person. Again, coming back to the point, look at me at the level, which is similar to yours. Don’t look down or don’t look up.

HALLVARD:

What about the other campaigns? #metoo, racism. All these things happening, changing our perspectives, probably too slow, but still a little bit. You think these campaigns are helping the ableism campaign, or do you think you have to do the ableism campaign parallel with everything else happening?

GAGAN:

However, this is a fantastic point, which you’re now mentioning. You’re spot on, because for instance, I want to now talk about a very important thing about diversity for instance, like when people think about diversity, they think about gender, race, ethnicity, religious ethnic minorities. And when they think about inclusion, they think about including these categories first, but they forget, or they put this disability as one of the last categories in the list. And that’s a huge problem. As I mentioned, like almost one out of five person in Norway has a disability or has an impairment, right? And disability is a cross-cutting issue. It cuts across different identity markers issue. Doesn’t matter what gender you have or race, what sexual orientation, which religious background, or if you are following a religious background or not, what’s your ethnicity. You can be disabled but slowly forget it.And that’s the issue. That’s the main, main problem. That in Norway, diversity is predominantly understood as gender diversity or gender equality and inclusion is seen through the lens of ethnic inclusion, minority inclusion. We’ve got to be having a much broader tent of diversity when we include people with disabilities, as in front and center of this whole debate or this whole inclusion effort or initiative, we’ve got to do that. That’s very, very important. And that’s where I think that we need to have a stop ableism campaign, a stop ableism initiative, because this issue of disabled people, disabled people have been pushed in the back of the queue, or they have been marginalized for far too long, for far, far too long. And you would start the stop ableism campaign, you have other minority groups, be allies with them, be allies with those who have different sexual orientation, the gender movement, the Me Too movement, the race movement, and explain to the world that there is this commonality, which we share that we are othered just because we are not the norm. And that has to be a strong message. We need a lot more solidarity, a lot more working together, a lot more collaboration. And as I mentioned, that I’ve used the word dialogue often. I don’t necessarily want to just finger point and say to the employers, you are the problem. You are not recruiting disabled people, or to say to the educational institutions, why are you making, not making sure that disabled youth finish high school.The issue is instead of pointing fingers to understand at a deeper level that perhaps we are uncomfortable with the idea of impairment, we are, we are not happy at the core. We are afraid of the fact that if we have disability, our life will be less valuable, less fulfilling, less meaningful, and we will be treated in a stigmatized, stereotypical, prejudicial way. That’s the, that’s the core issue. So we’ve got to, of course have the stop ableism campaign and hope that we can get a lot of allies, lot of support, a lot of change in the, in these peculiar times.

HALLVARD:

Gagan, thank you very much for, for bringing this topic in and putting words on it. And well, helping me at least understand a little bit better at this, the ableism cause.

GAGAN CHHABRA:

Hallvard, you see I really appreciate the fact that you invited me again. And this is fantastic to be here. And may this dialogue be one of the first steps to a much more robust debate on ableism in Norway and beyond.

HALLVARD:

Thank you very much. And if you’re listening, if you are more interested in this, I would… yeah, go and contact Gagan. Cause this is a guy who knows a lot about this topic, he is doing his research on this right now. So that’s a person to talk with and thank you for listening to this episode. You can listen to Viten og Snakkis on Spotify, on iTunes and all places you find podcasts. And I will be back soon with a new episode. Thanks a lot, see you around.

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