Humility in our efforts to help

Ableism. It’s a word, like racism and sexism, that describes a societal condition that leads to widespread discrimination and segregation, but focuses on those with a disability label. If ableism describes the culture that subjects people with disabilities to rejection, how do we analyse a service system that tries to help people, but in doing so, ends up reinforcing ablistic values of the culture?

This is something I call ‘benevolent ableism’, when well-meaning people set up programs or services that also segregate or send messages of stigma due to using disability as the defining core of the services, rather than such things as individualism, quality of life, informed choice and inclusion. Historically, we have seen benevolent ableism in the development of sheltered workshops, group homes and day activity programs, which were touted as the alternatives to institutionalisation, which itself was considered a benevolent service of its time.

Unfortunately, these models, while offering an option instead of something worse, still kept people from experiencing the kind of life they deserve. The challenge of benevolent ableism is that those who perpetuate it are well-meaning, caring folk who feel their actions are improving the lives of people with disabilities. But efforts to help do not automatically equal actual improvement of lives.

What are the problems?

1. Helpers Have More Power than Their Recipients

Disability service professionals and not those in need of support, mange the funding, call the shots and make the rules.

2. Helping Programs Arise from Prevailing Disability Service Fashions

Various disability service models have come in vogue over the years, and what is popular often determines the form the help takes. Sometimes what is popular has been poorly researched, if studied at all, and not held accountable. For example, studies have produced no evidence that time spent in sheltered workshops helps the employability of people with disabilities. In fact, the opposite is true.

3. Helpers Can Succumb to A Rescue Mentality

Those who help, regardless of how well-intentioned their motives, can easily take on the role of saviour and protector against all others. This dampens their ability to hear genuine criticism, insulates their approach and, at the same time, places the people being assisted as helpless without their rescuer. The individual being helped often treds a path to dependency not self-sufficiency.

In the end, benevolent ableism is often at the root of maintaining models that segregate and isolate. The rescue mentality, the resistance to innovation and the self-serving attitude of ‘we know what’s best’ prevents people with disabilities from more individual supports that could lead to more inclusive lives.

‘Quality of life’ is an elusive and varied goal for each individual. Therefore, we should all, including advocates for change in the existing system, be open to views that challenge our thinking. After all, if we are to escape benevolent ableism, we could all use a little more humility in our efforts to help.

Thanks Dale DiLeo for allowing us to share this thoughtful blog, first published as Benevolent Ableism - When Help Isn't Helping

 - Martin Wren