Recognizing ableism’s link to racism – a missing link in anti-racist social work practice

The social identities of race, ethnicity and disability have an intersectional relationship in our society, and social workers need to be attuned to this! Image from Dalberg.com https://dalberg.com/our-ideas/intersectionality-in-organizations-why-bringing-your-whole-self-to-work-is-not-sufficient/

(This article is coming out shortly in Social Work Helper)

These days, many social workers are pretty clear that anti-racism is something they need to work consistently on in their practice, but when it comes to ableism, well, that’s something else altogether. Let’s start with a quick definition of ableism to build our disability competence a bit. Disability activists Talila Lewis and Dustin Gibson frame ableism as “a system that places value on people’s bodies and minds based on societally constructed ideas of normalcy, intelligence, excellence, and productivity.” But seriously, ableism, you may say…what has that got to do with racism? Why are we even talking about this? 

It turns out, ableism and racism are related, and quite strongly. In fact, Dr. Ibram X. Kendi himself, host of the podcast Be antiracist and the book How to be an antiracist, says “It is pretty apparent to me that one cannot be anti-racist while still being ableist…I think for many people who are indeed striving to be anti-racist they may not realize the ways in which they’re still being prevented from moving along on this journey due to their unacknowledged or unrecognized ableism, or the ways in which they’re in denial.” You can read more about what he has to say on this topic in his recent podcastinterview with disability justice activist Rebecca Cokely about this topic (you can read the transcript here).

As we begin to break this down, as a disabled woman, I’d like for our profession to own that social work often forgets to consider the disability community in diversity considerations. And with this is a failure to see ableism, despite the fact that we, the disability community, comprise 26 percent of the U.S. population – that’s 1 in 4 Americans (Centers for Disease Control, 2021). Just as a reality check, this means that social workers are interacting with the disability community all over the place! And if you consider the racial and ethnic diversity within the disability community (and vice versa if we are being intersectional) then we need to be considering how ableism and racism interact and intersect. For example, 1 in 4 members of the Black and African American communities have a disability, while 1 in 6 members of the Hispanic/Latinx communities do. In the American Indian and Alaskan Native communities, it is 3 in 10, and among Asian and Pacific Islander communities, it is 1 in 10 and 1 in 6, respectively (Courtney-Long, Romano, Carroll, et al., 2017).

And when we start to look at social issues connected to these types of data points about population prevalence, we find out bits of information such as the fact that people of color with disabilities have higher rates of unemployment than do their White counterparts, for example (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2020). And then there are the realities that many school social workers have seen in classrooms nationwide for decades, with disproportionate numbers of students of color being sent into special education (Anderson, 2020). And in the post George Floyd era, we are also more aware of the connection between racism and ableism due to the fact that 50 percent of people killed during encounters with police are people of color with disabilities (Perry & Carter-Long, 2016). You can read an entire report by The Ruderman Family Foundation on that topic which analyzed this issue over a two-year period. 

And finally, we have the COVID-19 pandemic, which has disproportionately impacted communities of color (Centers for Disease Control, 2020). We know that initial research suggests that about one third of people who had the virus will develop what is called “long COVID” which will be classified as a disability (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2021). According to disability justice activist Rebecca Cokely, that means that we will be adding an estimated ten million people to the disability community who will be covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (Kendi, 2021). This law provides workplace and other protections for disabled people – although the implementation and enforcement of this law is far from perfect, and thus the cycle of ableism and racism starts again (Pulrang, 2019). 

These are just a few current day snippets that tell us we need to be paying attention to both ableism, racism and the ways in which these two forms of oppression are related to one another. But what are the historical roots of this relationship? We began to see the interaction between ableism and racism way back in our nation’s history. Let’s look at four examples.

During slavery times slaveowners conjured up the idea of drapetomania, the alleged psychosis that was experienced by runaway slaves which in retrospect was emblematic of the interaction of ableism and racism. This is an example of how race is pathologized to create racism. In other words, people of color were treated in specific oppressive ways in order to create barriers and conditions that resulted in the origination of disability categories. In reflecting on drapetomania, Isabella Kres-Nash (2016) points out that “the concept of disability has been used to justify discrimination against other groups by attributing disability to them.” Of drapetomania specifically, Kres-Nash says this is an example of a “disability being created by people in power in order to preserve social order” all of which occurred in a racialized context during slavery.

Moving into the 19th century, we can point to the popularity of phrenology, a pseudoscientific technique originally developed in the late 1700s which purports to determine an individual’s character and abilities (and therefore, alleged superiority). This could be deduced from the size and shape of various bumps on a person’s head. Phrenology, among other things, was used to justify the practice of slavery, as was depicted in the film Django, Unchained (Poskett, 2013). Although this pseudoscience has long been discredited, this technique is considered a precursor to modern neuropsychology and rears its ugly head once in a while in current-day conversations about the use of technology and facial recognition (which is known to be much less accurate for people of color) (Whyman, 2020). 

And if we look to more recent times, such as at the turn of the 20th century, we can see connections between racism and the ableist Eugenics movement which sought to breed a perfect human race through a form of “scientific racism” (Skibba, 2019). This movement often targeted “feebleminded” people now known as intellectually and developmentally disabled people, among others, for sterilization, many of whom were people of color (Dorr, 2010). In his discussion of the treatment of African American and Black “feebleminded” people, Dorr says “African Americans had become the targets of extra-institutional and extra-legal sterilizations, reflective of a more general southern racist view that it was necessary to further protect the white race itself from black folks.”

And in the early 1900s, what transpired with the inhabitants of Malaga Island in Maine is also emblematic of the relationship between racism and ableism. This small coastal island was a multiracial fishing community originally founded by an ex-slave (Milner, 2020). While inter-racial marriage was illegal, the community apparently allowed people to live and let live. It is said that many of the inhabitants of the island were “feebleminded” or intellectually and developmentally disabled, as we would now say. Whether this is accurate is unknown. As the Eugenics movement gained popularity and as the value of Maine’s coastal islands became more clear as tourist destinations, state government officials issued an eviction order to all of the Malaga residents – of all races and ethnicities – citing a range of ableist and other reasons for the action. All residents who had no place to go were to be placed in the Maine School for the Feebleminded, where some were eventually sterilized and lived out the rest of their lives. The price of miscegenation was banishment from a happy community due in large part to ableism (Kerrill Field, 2019). 

These four historical lessons give us some important context for what we see in practice today. So, to put it all together, when we look at how structural racism works, especially, we see the ways in which it has pathologized Black and Brown bodies for the purpose of keeping the status quo in place. And at the same time, we see how societies that benefit from structural racism are simultaneously responsible for facilitating environments that promote the development or highlighting of disability. This means that ableism and racism exist in a symbiotic relationship, because one is the tool of the other. Being aware of the intersection of racism and ableism is part of how social workers can begin to disrupt this reality in their practice and in their larger communities. So, what can you do to be more aware of racism and ableism in your social work practice? Here are some activities for you to consider as you engage in this vital social justice work:

1. Start by exploring your able-bodied privilege. Read the following prompts on able-bodied privilege (Links to an external site.) from the Autistic Hoya blog, written by Autistic disability justice activist and lawyer Lydia X. Z. Brown. Which items were most salient to you? You may consider the list items from a personal and/or a professional perspective, focusing on how you may or may not experience these issues yourself or how you may have encountered these issues as a social worker. How do race and ethnicity factor into able-bodied privilege?

2. Continue by building your personal disability awareness. What values and/or ideas do you hold that may unconsciously perpetuate ableism? Where did you pick up these values? How does this play out with your disabled clients of color?

3. Just as it is super important to acknowledge our potential for racism as people raised in a racist society, so too is it important to acknowledge the ways we may have engaged in the use of ableist language or expression of ableist attitudes. How have you or your agency/organization/company unconsciously or consciously used ableist language, or expressed ableist attitudes? How do race and ethnicity factor in here? How can you change things moving forward?

4. This article has demonstrated the connections between disability and race, but social work has often failed to see disability. How can you look at the causes you are already involved in through a disability framework that is also attentive to race and ethnicity? How can you lift up the disability perspective and promote disability empowerment while being anti-racist?

A few general readings/resources about disabled people of color:

Further Readings on Racism and Ableism from the Disability & Philanthropy Forum:

On Anti-Black Racism and Ableism:

On Anti-Asian Racism and Ableism: