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What's Adultism Got to do With Ableism?

Hi, my name is Rachel! I am a Youth Action Board Member, and for the past year and a half, I have been involved in the Youth Homelessness Demonstration Program. For those unfamiliar, the Youth Homelessness Demonstration Program, also known as the YHDP, is a federal initiative run by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) that brings grant money into communities for runaway and homeless youth programs and centers youth voice and leadership.

Throughout this process, our YAB has been extremely lucky to get connected to a number of different local and national organizations that have been helping us with this work. One of these organizations is True Colors United, an organization that specializes in LGBTQ+ youth homelessness and helps communities throughout the YHDP process by providing something called “technical assistance” (also known as TA).

TA looks like a lot of different things. For one, it provides our community with people far more experienced with the YHDP on a national level to guide our own community with advice, data, trainings, weekly check-ins and other forms of support. Our TA provider from True Colors United specializes in authentic youth collaboration. As a result, they have been instrumental at supporting our youth action board by providing our older adult partners with trainings on adultism.

Unsurprisingly, due to the nature of systems of oppression, which deny us the language to define our experiences, “adultism” was not a term I had heard before engaging in the YHDP. Sure, I had heard of the term “ageism,” but I had generally understood that as discrimination against elderly people. Adultism, on the other hand, explicitly names the thoughts, feelings, attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors that adults hold about younger people as well as how those thoughts, feelings, attitudes, and beliefs get embedded into the structure of systems.

Adultism might look like attitudes or beliefs that undermine young people’s knowledge, assume adults “know better,” exclude young people from having a say in the systems that impact them most, and deny young people language, education, training, or other resources for growth under the belief that young people are incapable of learning.

As I was learning about adultism, I was starting to realize just how much it has in common with ableism. Like adultism, ableism can function from a patronizing, minimizing perspective that assumes disabled people, like young people, are unintelligent and ineffective change makers. As I was reflecting, I ended up making a list of the things that adultism and ableism have in common. Here is my list:

What’s adultism got to do with ableism?

  • Both assume disabled and young people can’t make decisions for themselves

    • Young people are often required to get parental consent, with their own consent being altogether ignored.

    • Disabled people are similarly denied the right to consent if they are not able to communicate, or labeled unreliable narrators

  • Both assume disabled and young people are incompetent

  • Both assume disabled and young people can’t be trusted

  • Both undermine disabled and young people’s intelligence and assert they don’t “really” know what’s best for them

  • Both deny rights on a structural level (especially the right to consent)

    • Adultism denies young people the right to consent until turning 18, as well as numerous other legal rights

    • Ableism denies disabled people rights in many ways, particularly through practices such as institutionalization, conservatorships, and forced treatment.

    • Both young people and many disabled people are barred from voting (in Wisconsin, recent legislative changes have made the only accessible form of voting for some disabled people, absentee voting, extremely difficult).

  • Both adultism and ableism are criminalizing forces

    • Laws consider certain life choices “status offenses,” meaning that young people can be criminalized because of their age, even if an adult engaging in the same activity would not be considered a crime. One example of this is running away, which is criminalized in many states, or results in criminalization.

    • Disabled people are also heavily criminalized. Disabled people make up one third to one half of people killed by police violence. Institutionalization is a criminalizing practice that denies disabled people humanity and rights.

  • Both adultism and ableism create difficulties renting and securing housing

    • Landlords frequently discriminate against young people because of their lack of credit or rental history and require cosigners

    • Landlords frequently discriminate against disabled people by refusing to accept SSI/SSDI as sufficient income, or establishing discriminatory income requirements that disabled people often cannot achieve

  • Both ableism and adultism deny disabled and young people bodily autonomy

    • Child abuse and child sexual abuse thrive in environments where adultism casts child victims and survivors as unknowledgeable about their own bodies and experiences

    • Disabled people are three times more likely to experience sexual violence than non-disabled people, and disabled people with mental health or intellectual disabilities are 5 times more likely to experience sexual violence

I want to emphasize that this is not a comprehensive list. These are just some of the things that immediately came to mind as a young disabled survivor who has had to interact with numerous systems, particularly the homeless services system and medical-industrial complex. As I was creating this list, I realized that the same statements could be said for other systems of oppression. For example, like ableism, racism also operates as a criminalizing force, denies bodily autonomy, assumes people of color cannot be trusted, etc. This is to emphasize that all systems of oppression work together, often in similar ways, and that they cannot be disentangled from one another.

In fact, throughout my entire life it has been impossible for me to truly disentangle adultism from ableism because at the current moment I am still considered “young” and have never experienced ableism that isn’t also informed by older adults’ perception of me as young, or still a child. As a result, it’s essential that youth-serving institutions recognize and name how ableism and adultism function together on an interpersonal and structural level. Being able to identify these systems of oppression by name is the first step to reversing their harmful impacts and ensuring young people are cared for, respected, and empowered.

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1 Comment

Arya&Ria Sengelmann
Arya&Ria Sengelmann
Feb 26

Beautiful article, very well-written.

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