Thoughts & Reviews, Writing: I've Got Gadgets and Gizmos a Plenty...

Disabilism: A Word I Didn’t Know

I think it’s telling that when I type the word “disabilism” within WordPress’ platform, the word is automatically assigned a red squiggly underbelly. This mark of doom gives me pause that I mistyped the term, but a quick Google search verifies my spelling. Oxford Reference defines disabilism as “Discriminating against people because they have or are perceived to have an impairment.” In other words, disability discrimination. I’m throwing myself onto the sword: I didn’t know disabilism was a word. I know some disability history and am aware of general laws and governmental support for those with disabilities, at least in America. But clearly I do not know enough to recognize the simple –ism summarizing this ugly arena of human behavior.

All my life I’ve lived with, besides or around disabled people. How then did I not know this word?

I recently watched Adam Pearson and BBC’s “The Ugly Face of Disability Hate Crime” (link to follow at end). Mr. Pearson has Neurofibromatosis Type 1, a condition that causes benign tumors to grow on nerve endings. For Pearson, these tumors grow on his face. Pearson is followed by cameras around England as he proceeds on a one man journey to discover the root of disability hate crimes. The piece left me with a mixture of thoughts regarding human behavior, ranging from pure disgust, something akin to confusion, to finally hope and promise. The documentary ends on a high note, showing through a brief psychological study that prejudice can indeed be changed.

For the past few years, I have purposely begun researching disabilities to develop personal knowledge, sensitivity and awareness. I now know the etiquette for approaching a blind person and asking if they need assistance crossing a street. (Here’s a hint: Don’t grab them by the arm and drag them through Fifth Avenue traffic like you’re playing a wild game of Frogger.) I know basic American Sign Language, at least enough to carry on a conversation with a sympathetic deaf or hard of hearing person: “Yes, I’m not deaf. Please have pity on my signing. My fingers don’t quite ignite into flames yet when I fingerspell. We may be here awhile.”

Take time to look at the world from a different perspective. Put your life, thoughts and preconceptions on a shelf temporarily. Put on someone else’s face, body and life. Walk around, see what you can do, what you can’t, how you feel and why. Over and over I am realizing, the problem is never with disabled persons: it’s with those who react poorly, or even violently, to them. Who’s the disabled person now?

All of this, of course, makes for better compassion, human interaction and also–you guessed it–writing. Try it. I am.


  1. BBC Documentary: 
  2. Special Kids Special Books:  /
    Candid, relaxed interviews with children and adults with a wide range of disabilities.

Note: Fingerspell also came up with the red squiggly underbelly. How interesting.

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