Ableism at the Feminist Table: What Are Ableism and Accessibility, and Why Do Feminists Care?

by Carly Nelson

Ableism, simply put, is the idea that not having a disability is better than having a disability.  Growing up in the world of statements like “in spite of their disability (insert accomplishment here)” and “I don’t consider them to be disabled because they’re so successful (or some other word with positive connotations)” can make it surprising to learn that there’s an “ism” for that idea.  Let’s unpack that.

First, consider the idea that limitations are influenced by society.  Just as a single hand clapping will have no sound, “ability” only enables a person to accomplish a task when their capabilities match that task.  When we offer alternative distributions, supports, or definitions of tasks, we drastically increase the number of people who can be successful at them.  In organizations with multiple people, all of whom have diverse abilities by nature of being people, it’s logical and practical to plan operations in a way that makes use of individuals’ skills in a way that works for everyone.  Practice thinking about how tasks and duties can be adapted.

Such alterations also prompt us to reconsider “independence.”  Even when we call ourselves independent, we survive by depending on others.  I shower independently in the sense that I am typically alone when the showering occurs, but I certainly have not produced my own shampoo or gathered my own water.  I am dependent on others to do that, but nobody has ever questioned or lamented my dependence on others for the shampoo and water that are essential in my showering process.  If it for some reason becomes unsafe or overly difficult for me to shower without physical assistance, I will find someone who can help me.  There are plenty of people who rely on – and sometimes pay for – that kind of assistance in the same way that I purchase shampoo.  In either scenario, I’m getting help, and I’m getting clean hair.  

When people get their needs met through collaboration with others, that’s not inferiority or tragedy.  That’s life!  In a world where abilities are not universal, wouldn’t we be better off adapting our expectations and our structures to include everyone?  Inclusive spaces send the message that the space is intended for people of all ability levels – just as our spaces should be – and that people of all ability levels have something to offer.

So, as feminists, why do we care?  We care because the idea of collective liberation reminds us that our struggles are linked to the struggles of the groups around us; the same systems bind us all, and we must work together to overcome them.  We care because, as advocates for justice and equality, to not care would be to cast aside the very goals of safety, respect, and equality that we hold most dear.  We care because when we say feminism is for everyone, we need to mean that.

But caring isn’t enough.  As feminists, we know this.  Change comes when we carefully structure our words and actions around that caring.  Actively creating an accessible world is the responsibility of each of us, and we never know when we’ll be grateful we did.  Most who are not currently experiencing disability are “Temporarily Able-Bodied.”  We will all probably experience temporary or permanent disability in at least one area before the end of our lives.  Often, we are taught to fear this idea – to dread it and to hide any signs of it.  But if the disability rights movement teaches us anything, it is that disability is not the end of a meaningful life.  It is simply a need for systemic change.  We can start that change now.

Even as someone who already benefits from accessibility accommodations and regularly learns from others with disabilities, I still fall short of creating a fully inclusive environment.  I’ve found that having a question-based dialogue with myself is helpful in accessibility checks during meetings, events, and daily life.  Do the words that I’m using have a history of oppressing people with disabilities?  Is everyone involved aware of the walking distance/seating availability/elevator accessibility on the route I’m planning?  Am I speaking and writing simply and clearly?  How can I minimize things that might create difficult situations for some people (loud noises, bright lights, crowds, etc).  What modifications/escapes are available, and how have I publicized those?  Have I created an environment that empowers people to advocate for themselves, and am I listening carefully to them when they do?  We are always learning, and the only way to get better is to talk about it and to listen to people’s experiences.
So I ask you now to counter the ableism you’ve learned and to consciously pursue accessibility, and I don’t ask that lightly.  After all, I’m asking you to play a role in crucial change by rewiring the way you think and challenging heavily-normalized structures that have long oppressed people who deserve better.  Furthermore, I am asking you to consider the physical, cognitive, and emotional needs of a decidedly diverse group of people.  That’s a big ask.  Then again, what is feminism asking for?

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Image description: A group of hundreds of people, wearing an assortment of different colors and photographed from above, appear to be standing in the formation of a large gear.

Carly Nelson is a Speech Pathology & Audiology major at Kent State University.  She is also pursuing minors in Psychology and Nonprofit Studies in addition to a certificate in Disability Studies

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2 thoughts on “Ableism at the Feminist Table: What Are Ableism and Accessibility, and Why Do Feminists Care?

  1. Bravo Carly – well said. It reminds me of one of my favorite quotes: “A community that excludes even one of its members is no community at all.” Historically, people with disabilities have been expected to conform to fit in to a world not designed for them – by designed I mean systemically, physically, attitudinally, and otherwise. As a society, we see disability as a tragic circumstance as you pointed out. That is not necessarily an accurate view – there are many happy, healthy people LIVING WITH a disability. They are not victims of their disability, but instead conditions with which they are living. True inclusion will occur when we all examine our role in exclusion of these members of our community.

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  2. I am late arriving at this post, but still felt compelled to say “very well said!” For the last several years, as a disabled person for the last 20+ years, I’ve felt more and more that the historically oppressed and victimized groups all have an overlapping that allows for such empathy and understanding of the other’s struggle. My disability has made me an advocate for women, races of every kind, and the LGBT community. Thank you for drawing the connections between us all.

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