When ageism is really ableism
Many people overlook how ageism overlaps with ableism. But both can cause individuals to be excluded, or exclude themselves, from society.
Mariska van der Horst, lecturer at the VU Amsterdam, argues that without identifying the source of inequality, the remedies to reduce them from society will be ineffective.
We are at the beginning of the UN Decade of Healthy Ageing (2021-2030). One of the main goals for this decade is to combat ageism. Ageism is defined in the global report on ageism as “stereotypes (how we think), prejudice (how we feel) and discrimination (how we act) directed towards people on the basis of their age”. But when we're talking about older age, is it really about age, or is it about perceived and expected ability?
An important stereotype about older age is that it will come with mental, cognitive, and physical decline. This expected health decline is a frequent source of jokes, for example on TV, on birthday cards, and in internet memes. This stereotype is then also internalised by people themselves. Research carried out by myself and Sarah Vickerstaff, Professor of Work and Employment at the University of Kent, showed that some older people talk about being ‘too old’ for participating in training, partly because they feel they will be slower to learn at their age (cognitive decline).
They articulate that they can only remain in work while they are still healthy enough, although they may want to retire earlier to ‘at least have some good years in retirement’. Together then, this leads to an assumption that to participate in society one needs to be in good health. And that is where ableism* comes in.
According to Fiona Kumari Campbell, Professor of Disability and Ableism Studies at the University of Dundee, ableism “refers to: a network of beliefs, processes and practices that produces a particular kind of self and body (the corporeal standard) that is projected as the perfect, species-typical and therefore essential and human”. People who have an impairment are then considered to be ‘less than’.
We should look at the various ways ableism affects older people, and what the practical and policy implications are. Because of age stereotypes, tackling ableism is likely to also reduce what we have been referring to as ageism.
And like ageism, this is a message that individuals internalise. Deviations from the ‘standard’ are considered something that needs to be ‘fixed’, or if that is not possible, something to pity. Society is typically built around that 'corporeal standard'. And if people deviate from this standard, they should get ‘aids’ to get around in the world, to adapt. If they can ‘pass as normal’ they are less likely to be seen as a ‘negative’.
Older age then also becomes part of (expected) deviation from this ‘standard’. The decline narrative is based on this fall from the ‘standard’ fully-abled body. A standard that not everyone could fulfil anyway, regardless of their age. If, for example, learning is only for those who can quickly pick things up or if public buildings are only for those who can easily walk and see well, anyone who does not fulfil this corporeal standard risks exclusion. Either because other people exclude them, or because people exclude themselves as they experience a place or activity to not be for them (anymore).
Is all ageism ableism? I don’t think that is the case either. In our work on ageism in the workplace, Sarah Vickerstaff and I unpacked various layers of ageism. Part of the conversation around ageism in paid work was, for example, also about generations, such as who should get resources when resources are scarce? Both managers and employees themselves chose, at times, to prioritise younger colleagues.
Does it matter if we ascribe the inequality faced by older people to ageism or ableism? I would argue that it does. If it is true that part of ageism towards older people is actually ableism, strategies to reduce ageism based on age alone are unlikely to succeed. We also need strategies to tackle ableism. Reducing ableism should then also reduce ageism. Therefore, carefully evaluating when it is about ageism and when it is about ableism should guide strategies used to tackle the negative consequences of these -isms for older people.
Ageing Better does important work confronting ageism. Recently, Dr Ann Leahy, post-doctoral research fellow at Maynooth University, made a case for including older people experiencing disability more, something I wholeheartedly agree with. I would add to that by arguing that ableism affects all people, including all older people, regardless of current health status. And that we should look at the various ways ableism affects older people, and what the practical and policy implications are. Because of age stereotypes, tackling ableism is likely to also reduce what we have been referring to as ageism.
*Two closely related terms are ableism and disablism. I follow here the reasoning of Campbell, and see the terms as closely related but different. The reason I chose the term ‘ableism’ for this blog is because the analytical focus is on the (consequences of the) corporeal standard.
Mariska van der Horst is a lecturer at the Vrije Universiteit (VU) Amsterdam in the Netherlands as well as honorary researcher at the University of Kent. Her research focusses on variety of labour market issues, with a special interest in older workers, gender differences, dis/ability, and intersectionality.
The views and opinions expressed in this guest blog are those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the policy or positions of the Centre for Ageing Better.