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Gregor Wolbring: The Politics of Ableism

Gregor Wolbring: The Politics of Ableism

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Published by Bloom
Gregor Wolbring at the invitation of the Editor to
continue the ideas of an earlier article published in volume 49
number 4 shares with Development readers his understanding of
the concept of ableism. He argues that the term ability should not
be used just in relation to disabled people but understood in a
broader cultural perspective. He highlights different forms of
ableism, the role of new and emerging technologies, the
consequences of different forms of ableism and the importance
of dealing with the concept of ableism on the policy level, and
proposes the need for a field of ability studies that examine ableism.
Gregor Wolbring at the invitation of the Editor to
continue the ideas of an earlier article published in volume 49
number 4 shares with Development readers his understanding of
the concept of ableism. He argues that the term ability should not
be used just in relation to disabled people but understood in a
broader cultural perspective. He highlights different forms of
ableism, the role of new and emerging technologies, the
consequences of different forms of ableism and the importance
of dealing with the concept of ableism on the policy level, and
proposes the need for a field of ability studies that examine ableism.

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Dialogue
The Politics of Ableism
GREGOR WOLBRING
ABSTRACT
Gregor Wolbring at the invitation of the Editor tocontinue the ideas of an earlier article published in volume 49number 4 shares with
Development
readers his understanding of the concept of ableism. He argues that the term ability should not be used just in relation to disabled people but understood in abroader cultural perspective. He highlights different forms of ableism, the role of new and emerging technologies, theconsequences of different forms of ableism and the importanceof dealing with the concept of ableism on the policy level, and  proposes the need for a field of ability studies that examine ableism.
KEYWORDS
sexism; racism; transhumanism; choice; policy; ability  studies; ableism
Introduction
Ableism is a concept that is not well understood. It is most often used to describe thenegative treatment of disabled people (Answers.com,2007; Merriam-Webster,2007). Itsuse in this case parallels the terms sexism, racism, ageism and other isms (Miller
et al 
.,2004). However, I findthe current use ofableismanddisableism limited both incontentand scope. Every ism has two components. Something we value and something we donot. The subject of the isms can be negative or positive. For example, ageism reflectsthe negative labelling and treatment of the elderly.We could equallycall ageism youth-ism, which values the abilities of youth. Racism carries a double meaning: a value of one race over another and the discrimination against another race. Sexism describes(usually)thevaluingof themalesexandthe discrimination(usually)againstthefemalesex. Ableism values certain abilities, which leads to disableism the discriminationagainst the‘less able. Ableismoftenconfuses the valuingorobsessionwithability withthe term disableism. However besides confusing ableism with disableism speakingabout ableism only in connection with the so-calleddisabled peopleis also a problem.Iusethetermsableism(Wolbring,2006a,2007a,b,c,d,e)andasaconsequencedisable-ism/disablism ina muchbroader sense thanthe current definitions.
What is ableism?
Ableism is a set of beliefs, processes and practices that produce ^ based on abilities oneexhibitsorvalues^aparticularunderstandingofoneself,onesbodyandonesrelationship
Development,
2008
,
51
, (252–258)
r
2008 Society for International Development 1011-6370/08www.sidint.org/development
Development 
(2008)
51,
252–258. doi:10.1057/dev.2008.17
 
with others of humanity, other species and theenvironment, and includes how one is judged byothers (Wolbring, 2006a,2007a,b,c,d). Ableismreflects the sentiment of certain social groupsand social structures that value and promotecertain abilities, for example, productivity andcompetitiveness, over others, such as empathy,compassionand kindness.This preference forcer-tainabilities overothers leads toa labellingof realor perceived deviations from or lack of ‘essential’abilities as a diminished state of being, leading orcontributing to justifying various other isms(Wolbring,2006a,2007a,b,c,d).Ableism is an umbrella ism for other isms suchas racism, sexism, casteism, ageism, speciesism,anti-environmentalism, gross domestic product(GDP)-ism and consumerism. One can identifymanydifferent forms of ableism suchas biologicalstructure-based ableism (B), cognition-basedableism (C), social structure-based ableism (S)and ableism inherent to a given economic system(E). ABECS could be used as the ableism equiva-lent to the NBICS S&T convergence (Wolbring,2007e).Ableism and preference of certain abilities hasbeen rampant throughout history. Ableismshaped and continues to shape areas such as hu-man security (Wolbring, 2006c), social cohesion(Wolbring, 2007f), social policies, relationshipsamong social groups, individuals and countries,humans and non-humans, and humans and theirenvironment (Wolbring, 2007a,b,c). Ableism isone of the most societally entrenched andaccepted isms.Historically, ableism has been used by varioussocialgroupstojustifytheirelevatedlevelofrightsand status in relation to other groups (i.e. womenwereviewed as biologically fragile and emotional,and thus incapable of bearing the responsibilityof voting, owning propertyand retaining custodyof their own children (ableism leading to sexism;Silvers
et al 
.,1998;Wolbring,2003).
Different forms of ableism
Ableism against disabled people (Wolbring,2007a,b,c) reflects a preference for species-typical normative abilities leading tothe discrimi-nation against them as ‘less ableand/or as‘impaired’disabled people (Wolbring,2004,2005).This type of ableism is supported by the medical,deficiency, impairment categorization of disabledpeople (medical model) (Wolbring, 2004, 2005). Itrejects the‘variation of being’, biodiversity notionand categorization of disabled people (social mod-el). It leads to the focus on ‘fixing’ the person orpreventing more of such people being born andignores the acceptance and accommodation of such people in their variation of being (Wolbring,2005). Ableism has also long been used to justifyhierarchies of rights and discrimination betweenother social groups, and to exclude people notclassified asdisabled people’.Sexism is partlydrivenbya formofableismthatfavours certain abilities, and the labelling of wo-men as not having those certain necessary abil-ities is used to justify sexism and the dominanceof males over females. Similarly, racismandethni-cism are partly driven by forms of ableism, whichhave two components. One favours one race orethnic group and discriminates against another.The book
The Bell Curve
(Herrnstein and Murray,1994) judged human beings on their cognitiveabilities’ (theirIQ). It promoted racismbyclaimingthatcertainethnicgroupsareless cognitivelyablethan others.The ableist judgement related to cog-nitive abilities continues justifying racist argu-ments. Casteism, like racism, is based on thenotion that socially defined groups of people haveinherent,naturalqualitiesoressences’thatassignthemto socialpositions, make them fit for specificdutiesandoccupations(Omvedt,2001).Thenatur-al inherent qualities areabilitiesthat make themfit for specific duties and occupations.
Science and technology and changes inableism
The direction and governance of science andtechnologyandableismarebecoming increasinglyinterrelated.Technologies suchas nanotechnology,biotechnology, information technology, cognitivescience and synthetic biology (NBICS) have animpact on the usage and content of ableismand favourcertainabilities, and how we judge anddeal with abilities influences the direction
Wolbring: The Politics of Ableism
253
 
and governance of NBICSprocesses, products andresearchand development (Wolbring,2006b).The increased abilityof science and technologyto modify the appearance and functioning of thehuman body and the bodies of other speciesbeyond existing norms and species-typicalboundaries leads to a changed understanding of ourselves, our bodies and our relationships withhumanity, other species and our environment.New forms of ableism (transhumanized forms of ableismand disablism) are appearing.
Transhumanizations of ableism anddisableism related to humans (Wolbring,2005, 2007a,b,c)
Up to this point in history a non-impaired personis someonewhosebodyfunctioning isseenasper-forming within acceptable species-typical para-meters. This, however, is changing. The ability of NBICS products to modify the appearance of thehuman body and its functioning beyond existingnorms and species-typical boundaries allows fora redefinitionof what it meanstobe non-impaired(Wolbring,2005).One transhumanized form of ableism is thenetwork of beliefs, processes and practices thatperceives improving the human body and func-tioning beyond species-typical boundaries asessential.The transhumanized version of ableismsees all bodies as limited, defective and in need of constant improvement beyond species-typicalboundaries.This transhumanized version of ableism givespreferencetogoingbeyondhumanspecies-typicalabilities and sees humans as ina diminished stateof being if they are not enhanced beyond humanspecies-typicalabilities.The emerging field of enhancement medicinepushestheboundariesofwhatisthehumannormthrough genetic manipulation (genomic freedom)and biological bodies (morphological freedom)through surgery, pharmaceuticals, implants andother means (Sandberg,2001;Wolbring,2005).Such scientific endeavours fit well with theexisting medicalization of the human body wheremore and more variations of human body struc-ture and functioning are labelled as deviations ordiseases.This meansthat moreand more‘healthy’people feel ‘unhealthy, feel bad about their bodilystructure and functioning’ (Wolbring, 2005). Thetranshumanized version of ableism elevates themedicalization dynamic to its ultimate endpoint,namely, to see the enhancement beyond species-typical body structures and functioning as atherapeutic intervention (transhumanization of medicalization) (Wolbring,2005).As more powerful, less invasive and more so-phisticated enhancements become available, themarket share and acceptance of enhancementproducts will grow. For any given enhancementproduct there will not be a bell curve distribution,but rathera distribution jump from the‘have notsto the‘haves’, whichwill lead directly to anabilitydivide.Whatwillchange^dependingonthesocialreality such as GDPof the economy, income levelsand other parameters ^ is how many people endup as‘haves’or ‘non-haves’ (intrinsic and externaltechno-poor disabled). The ability divide will becomplexbetweenhigh-andlow-incomecountriesand betweenthepoorand richwithineverycoun-try. Not everyone canafford enhancingones body,and no society can afford to enhance everyone’sbody if everyone so wishes.Those deemed able bymost people today, but who cannot afford or donot want the technological enhancements tomor-row will became the new class of techno-poordisabled. Billions of people, who todayare seen asable, will become disabled not because theirbodies have changed, but precisely because theyhave not changed their bodies inaccordance withthe transhumanist norm.Such a future will lead to a transhumanizedversionofdisableismwherethosewhodonothaveor do not want certain enhancements (the intrin-sically techno-poor disabled) will be discrimi-nated against, given negative labels and sufferoppressive and abusive behaviour and otherconsequences.
Ableism and transhumanism related toanimals (Wolbring, 2007a,b,c)
Speciesism assigns different values and rights tobeings based on their abilities. Humans are seenas superior over other species because of their
Development 51(2): Dialogue
254

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