Shared stigma, separate silos—more on the intersection of ageism + ableism

People with disabilities come in all ages, and almost all of us encounter some change in physical or mental capacity as we grow old. Yet, as I wrote in this substantial post, “We act as though old people never become disabled and disabled people never grow old.” Academics and policymakers approach disability and aging as separate fields, as Ann Leahy observed in this post for the International Network for Critical Gerontology (daunting name, terrific resource). Why? Because people in the aging field are understandably leery of seeming to equate aging and disability, and because, as Leahy noted, disability activists tend to be younger and mainly focused on issues that affect people of working age. Because we’re short-sighted and we’re all prejudiced.

This does none of us any favors, something I want to address in a new talk I’m working on. Here’s the passage-in-progress. Comments and critiques very welcome.

Ageism feeds ableism (prejudice against people with disabilities), and vice versa.

Disability and aging are different. They also overlap in important ways. Both olders and people with disabilities encounter discrimination and prejudice. And both groups face stigma. Many olders refuse to use wheelchairs or walkers, even when it means never leaving home. My uncle wouldn’t use a white cane even when he grew completely blind, preferring to rely on the kindness of strangers and taxi drivers. As for the ageism stigma, after breaking a bone in her foot, a not-yet-forty-year-old friend likewise declined a cane, deferring to crutches because they signal “injured,” not “old” or “disabled.” Cognitive impairment is even more stigmatized.

Being older or having a disability doesn’t keep us from being ageist or ableist. Age cooties! Handicapped people make me uncomfortable! That’s how prejudice works: it frames the other group—what we think of as the other group, that is—as alien and lesser than ourselves. This defies common sense, because people with disabilities come in all ages, after all, and most of us, if we live long enough, will encounter changes in physical or mental capacity. Healthy aging can, and does, involve disability. Ignoring the overlap leaves the stigma unchallenged, and rules out collective activism.

We have a lot to learn from the activists who in the 1970s and ‘80s reframed the way we see disability. They changed it from an individual medical problem into a social problem—bingo!—and then demanded integration, access, and equal rights. Olders and people with disabilities share the same goal: a culture that rejects narrow definitions of “productivity” and “attractiveness,” finds meaning within limitations—the bull looks different—and takes a realistic and inclusive view of what it means to be human. Let’s join forces.

5 thoughts on “Shared stigma, separate silos—more on the intersection of ageism + ableism

  1. I never thought I’d be using a wheelchair but here I am, struggling with my gait and actually look forward to a trip to the grocery story when I can get my lightweight quickie out of my Prius and go ripping down the cereal isle! Did I mention I swim a half mile six days a week (I’d swim seven if the pool was open). Life is what you make it, eh?


    1. Amen — love your choice… your way of looking at life. I have a friend loves using her new walker with its sleek/beautiful design (took her awhile to find it). Like you – at 60, she didn’t think she’d end up needing one.. but decided to do it in style

  2. Great post, Ashton. Here’s an accessible way to start chipping away at this stereotype, that I found by accident. A friend had a broken leg, and I would take her shopping. All the stores and malls have those electric carts with baskets that you can borrow. She loved it, and they are a bit hard to drive–they lurch like golf carts. She ran into some displays and we would burst out laughing–store employees told us that are on wheels, too and it happens all the time. We went by the wine tasting at the store and she had some, and generally had a great time. People looked so surprised when she laughed, when we talked back and forth, when we smiled–we are taught not to look at disabled people, not to offend them, which can easily turn into “don’t acknowledge them”. Later, I used a cart with my husband walking along, when I had knee surgery–the mall was hilarious for the same reasons. In all settings, it was also surprising how often people jumped in front of the cart, as if it was my job to get out of their way (!), or didn’t bother to hold a door open, etc.

    After using the cart, I used a cane to help get around. Some people were quite nice and helpful, while others were annoyed that I was in their way.

    Everyone who needs an empathy lesson should experience using a cane or a cart, to see how differently others may react. Many mothers with strollers have probably experienced the same range of attitudes. There’s nothing like first hand experience.

    1. A hugely relevant piece, “Putting Inclusion Into Practice,” by Kate Bunting of HelpAge. Every sentence is important. An excerpt: “Our current data systems are still, by design, exclusive. Certain demographic and health surveys, for instance, still do not collect data on people over the age of 49 and when they do it may not be disaggregated by age. Lumping people into homogenous data categories, doesn’t seem like the worst injustice until we consider …what this translates to in practice: distribution centers reachable only by those who can walk there; food only for those capable of digesting it; and emergency warnings understood only by those who can see and hear..”

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