Why does ableism cause harm?

Even with the best intentions, you can’t help someone you view as less.

One of my favorite wise observers of human behavior, existential psychologist Michael Schreiner, argues that contempt is the one negative emotion without a positive purpose, the only one that causes nothing but harm (emphasis in bold is mine):

Contempt is the most psychologically damaging of the emotions and …it has no place in healthy human relationships. It seeks to make the other person less than fully human and both parties who accept this situation lose some of their humanity as a result. People seem to believe that hatred is the opposite of love, but actually contempt is.

When you feel contempt for someone you brush off their thoughts and feelings as inconsequential. That person becomes, in your mind, less than human and not worthy of the same rights and considerations…Contempt is an integral component of every abusive relationship.

John Gottman, the psychologist who can predict with over 90% accuracy whether a couple will divorce from a 15 minute observation, finds that contempt, not conflict, best predicts the end of a marriage. Partners who fight viciously can stay together, otherwise happily, for years, and they can learn to make peace if the conflict distresses them deeply enough. But if either or both partner holds contempt toward the other, it damages the relationship quickly and irrevocably.

While neither psychologist likely had disabilities in mind, they neatly explain why even well-intentioned ableism — prejudice against people with disabilities — destroys lives.

[Ableism includes both actions and the beliefs and attitudes that cause them, whether conscious or unconscious. What directly causes harm is actions (and words, to a lesser extent). However, beliefs and attitudes matter because sooner or later they come out in words and actions, often in ways the actor is unaware of and does not intend. We can observe this leakage in situations having nothing to do with ableism. When a person despises a coworker but takes pains to disguise it with friendliness, somehow something of their real attitude comes through, if only in a sense of phoniness — and the coworker will probably dislike them, too].

People with disabilities, myself included, often see a world full of ableism. Not only in the obvious suspects abled people understand, like architects who design inaccessible buildings, parents who kill their own children, governments that cut financial aid to those unable to work, or organizations that describe people with disabilities as “changelings,” “burdens,” “missing,” or a “public health crisis.”

We also see it among parents who love their children, special education teachers, researchers, and disability service providers. We see it in people who talk about disabled people in front of them, instead of addressing them, simply assuming they are incapable of expressing themselves (“what does he want?” “what does she think about that?”). We see it in arguments advocating the return of institutionsfor their own good.” We see it in articles spreading “feel-good narratives’ about a person assumed to be “suffering from” a disability “overcoming” it (and call such narratives condescending “inspiration porn”).

People without disabilities, not having experienced these indignities directed at themselves, often don’t get it. The uncharitable among them see disabled advocates as simply another special interest group complaining about nothing, or even as ungrateful towards people trying to help. I want them to understand:

No matter what your intentions, you can’t help someone if you see them as less, if you treat them as less.

Treating someone as a lesser being automatically hurts them no matter what positive results might come alongside.

In other words, even if you feed and shelter someone while treating them with contempt, you’re still hurting them.

Ableism is fundamentally about contempt, not hate or indifference.

That’s what makes it so toxic, so corrosive.

Outright hate certainly exists, and governments and the general public can often be indifferent to disabled people’s needs. But most nice, normal people exhibit some degree of contempt for people with disabilities — if only “those low functioning ones” who can’t speak, or have low IQ, or can’t dress or toilet themselves, or self injure. It comes out in their acceptance of relegating such people to segregated classrooms, sheltered workshops, and residential “care homes” completely separated from the community. It comes out in their assumptions that students with low IQ scores lack any awareness of the attitudes or behavior of the people around them because they lack not only comprehension of language as more than noise, but also the “mental space” to be aware of even nonverbal information! (Contrast this with the humble attitude advocated by people with disabilities that we just don’t know what people unable to express themselves to us can understand, and therefore, to avoid doing harm, we should avoid assuming complete incomprehension).

You probably won’t find many teachers or service providers working with disabled people who express hatred or indifference, but many project contempt, even while trying to help and defend their charges.*1

On Medium and elsewhere, I often discuss how ableist attitudes and behavior directly attack the humanity of people with disabilities. It hadn’t occurred to me, before reflecting on Michael Schreiner’s words, that ableism also degrades those who practice it.*2 However, it’s probably true, and important. If so, it’s in everyone’s best interests to eradicate ableism.

*1 By the way, this puts a huge emotional strain on people with disabilities who want to work in disability research or services. I wouldn’t be surprised if it discouraged some from going into these fields.

*2 Such arguments have been used historically because of their political utility. American abolitionists, who rarely supported racial equality and whose audience certainly didn’t, often favored arguing that slavery degraded the owners.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Mosaic of Minds: A Disability Research Review

Mosaic of Minds: A Disability Research Review


Emily Morson explains research on neurodivergent brains through the lens of cognitive neuroscience, SLP, & lived experience. #neurodiverseSTEM cofounder.