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Kathleen R. Bogart  

Dana S. Dunn


Ableism: A Social Issue Whose Time Has Come

Kathleen R. Bogart, Ph.D. and Dana S. Dunn, Ph.D

For the first time in 31 years, the Journal of Social Issues (JSI) has published an issue focused on disability. This is only the third issue on the topic in JSI’s long history. Titled Ableism, the issue examines stereotyping, prejudice, discrimination, and social oppression toward people with disabilities. Comprising 19% of the United States population, disabled people are the largest minority group in the United States. This fact matters because too few citizens, whether they are disabled or nondisabled, view disability as a way to categorize people similar to race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, social class, and so on. The issue has three sections: social and individual-level predictors of ableism, experiences and consequences of ableism, and navigating and resisting ableism.

From a social constructivist perspective, anyone who is perceived (correctly or incorrectly) by others or who self-identifies as having a disability can be considered disabled. Some conditions are commonly associated with disability, such as physical, sensory, and intellectual disabilities. We define disability broadly and include non-stereotypic disabilities such as invisible disabilities, chronic health conditions, and psychiatric disorders. What is often lost on nondisabled perceivers is that disabled persons usually view their disabilities as part of who they are; an identity and a way of being, but something that is not a preoccupation. People with disabilities only focus on their condition when prompted to do so by others or by challenges posed by the physical environment.

In our introduction to the issue (Bogart & Dunn, 2019), we contrast the typical Western view of disability as an individual medical problem—one seeking a “cure” or some related intervention aimed at ameliorating some condition—with a social constructivist model supported by disability studies scholars and activists. The social model of disability frames disability as a social, political, and economic issue, stating that the primary cause of disability is a society biased against and a physical world not designed for certain bodies and minds. This model parallels social constructivist understandings of gender, race, and ethnicity.

Consider two examples from this special issue: Despite policy advances since the last issue (e.g., The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990), implicit and explicit ableism is still prevalent, and issue authors Harder, Keller, and Chopik (2019) find the former has increased over time. Further, Branco, Ramos, and Hewstone (2019) find that ableism has more deleterious effects on health and well-being compared to the effects of being discriminated against for other minoritized statuses.

Michelle Fine, editor of the previous JSI issue on disability, writes a powerful concluding article in the form of a letter to Adrienne Asch, the late co-editor of that issue. In this piece, she takes to task the role that psychology has played in constructing and segregating disabled persons and calls for work toward disability justice.

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