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Michelle Nario-Redmond  

Hostile, Benevolent and Ambivalent Ableism:
Contemporary Manifestations

Michelle Nario-Redmond, Ph.D.

JSI’s recent special issue on ableism highlights the impacts of ableism, or prejudice against disabled people. The issue includes our recent article, “Hostile, Benevolent, and Ambivalent Ableism: Contemporary Manifestations.” In our article, we analyzed narratives from people with a variety of disabilities—both visible and less apparent—to identify the differing types of ableism that they experience in their daily lives. Our findings have some important implications for policy and research.

A major finding from our article is that ableism is not a unidimensional experience or one that can be measured with a simple “feeling” thermometer. Rather, people exhibit a range of emotional and behavioral responses to disabled people, including reactions that seem positive on the surface such as inspiration or helping; “mixed” reactions like pity or envy; and purer forms of hostility. Some of our respondents also described encounters with ableism that morphed from one form to another. For example, someone might start out by over-helping, and then become angry or hostile when their “help” is declined.

Another important finding is that people with different disabilities may be the target of different ableist behaviors that signal the same type of prejudice. For example, people with visible disabilities often experienced paternalistic prejudice in the form of over-helping or infantilization by others. People with less apparent disabilities also reported being the targets of paternalistic prejudice, but they were much more likely to experience it in the form of having their disability invalidated by others, such as family members or doctors.

We describe how the multiple forms of ableism contribute to problematic disability policies. For example, paternalistic beliefs can support policies denying the autonomy, parenting and voting rights of disabled people. Invalidation or envy can create barriers for disabled people seeking needed health and housing benefits or accommodations in work and school. And, contempt or dehumanization of disabled people can support policies discriminating against disabled people in life-extending treatments, such as organ transplantation, or in lighter sentencing for people who kill their disabled family members.

Conventional wisdom often suggests that ableism can be treated by simply building “disability awareness” and facilitating contact between disabled and nondisabled people. In contrast to this advice, our research suggests that ableism is a multifaceted problem requiring a multipronged approach that acknowledges and mitigates misinformed thoughts, ambivalent emotions, and discriminatory behaviors directed toward disabled people, who constitute the largest minority group in the United States. Ableism is everyone’s concern as it a membership that most people will experience during our lifetimes.