What Is Ableism?

Content Warning: This blog post deals with ableism and may be upsetting or triggering to some people

Naming the Problem

You would think that writing about something that you experience every day would be 19120948.jpgeasy. Every time I’ve tried to write about ableism, my mind starts whirring and spinning and trying to go in every direction all at once. I’ve written 10 drafts and none of them have been right or linear and none of them have captured the lived experience of ableism. Bear with me…


Ableism. One word. Three syllables. But with it, we can name the problem, we can begin to address the problem.

So what is it? Let’s start with some existing definitions of ableism.

Defining the Problem

  1. From Wikipedia: “…discrimination of individuals with physical disabilities or deformities, resulting in discrimination or social prejudice against people with disabilities.”
  2. From Merriam-Webster: “discrimination or prejudice against individuals with disabilities.”
  3. From StopAbleism.Org: “a set of practices and beliefs that assign inferior value (worth) to people who have developmental, emotional, physical or psychiatric disabilities.”

So…aren’t these definitions enough? I think they’re a wonderful starting place. Both Wikipedia and MW address the discriminatory and prejudicial aspect of ableism but where Wikipedia makes the mistake of specifying that ableism is only for individuals with physical disabilities and visible differences. StopAbleism.Org’s definition is fairly complete but all of these definitions are addressing the individual.

For something to truly be an “-ism,” it’s not just about the individual, it’s about society and power (see my blog post on privilege and oppression). In fact, the very suffix  -ism denotes practices, principles, and doctrines. Ableism isn’t just about how we treat individuals but rather how we view and treat Disabled people/people with disabilities on a societal level and I believe it’s crucial that a definition incorporates this. I would offer the following definition:

“the societal devaluing of, as well as oppression of, Disabled people/people with disabilities and those that are perceived to be disabled, including those with mental, physical, emotional, intellectual, and developmental disabilities and illnesses. We carry out this devaluing through discriminatory practices on an individual and institutional level.”

You’ll also note that I included people who are perceived to be disabled in the definition. I think of it like this, if you’re throwing a large stone at an object in a crowded lake, you may be intending to only hit the one object, but the people in the lake will feel the ripples from the stone, regardless of your intentions to only hit the object. That’s how I feel about ableism that’s not directed toward a Disabled person/PWD. I can hear a person yelling an ableist slur at someone near me who is non-Disabled and it still affects me, even if I wasn’t the target.

Ableism in Action

Ableism at the Institutional Level

Some of the ableism at the institutional level has intentionally been built into the system. Other times, the ableism is unintentional, an unplanned consequence (or it’s something that’s individual and not built-in). The people in power in government are overwhelmingly non-Disabled (and privileged on most axes) and Disabled people/PWD are at best an afterthought.

Here are some examples of intentional vs unintentional ableism in different institutions (I apologize for the overlap):

Institution Unintentional Intentional
Health Care Majority opposition to universal healthcare hurts Disabled people the most Deliberately long process to get Disability
Polling non-Disabled people for healthcare decisions that will affect everyone Disabled people aren’t viewed as capable of making own decisions regarding healthcare
The Baker Act
Decisions regarding Right to Die are based on tragedy of disability
SSDI forces people to live in poverty
Government Cuts in voting locations making lines longer so Disabled people are unable to vote (unintentional?) Not making government meetings accessible to Disabled, DDHOH, and Blind people
Candidates for public office not considering the DisCo an important constituency
Cutting programs for Disabled people
Education Disabled students not represented in course materials Buildings and classrooms that aren’t accessible (may be grandfathered in)
Forced integration or segregation
Universities that don’t accommodate absences due to disability or illness
Physical requirements (FitBits at universities) or with interaction with peers that are graded
Media/Sports Assumptions about athleticism of Disabled athletes vs. non-Disabled athletes Unequal airtime for Paralympics, Special Olympics
  Not allowing banned medication for any reason
Non-Disabled people winning awards for portraying Disabled people Lack of disability representation in the media (especially diverse (BILAPI, size/shape gender, age, etc.) Need for most marginalized to be centered
Focus on health as goal Forced BMI for models
Employment Assumptions about how qualified a Disabled person is vs. a non-Disabled person Making doctors disclose mental and physical illnesses in order to receive state credentialing, regardless if accommodations are needed (seen as a liability)
Paying Disabled employees a subminimum wage
Policies regarding sick leave
Not wanting to hire someone with a pre-existing health condition because of health insurance premiums
Transportation & Infrastructure Attitudes of public transit passengers toward wheelchair users (burden) All public buses not being equipped with a wheelchair ramp
Sidewalks not being maintained properly (especially in winter) or graded properly) Prioritization of strollers over wheelchairs
Crosswalks that aren’t accessible and safe for blind people and people with low vision


Ableism at the Individual Level

Ableism-It’s easier for me to explain ableism using personal, specific examples. My experience is different from most perhaps, because I spent the first 23 years of my life unaware that I was physically Disabled and chronically ill. However, I was very aware that I was mentally ill and that I had learning Disabled (which would later be properly labeled Autism).

As a child ableism was:

  • being called a freak
  • being called stupid
  • not having friends because I was “different”
  • being locked in a dark closet by my 6th grade teacher because I was too difficult
  • being bullied daily
  • having teachers participate in pranks on me
  • schools refusing to make accommodations because they were private and I wasn’t failing

As an adult ableism has been:

  • being screamed at in the street for parking in a Disabled parking space
  • having a professor call me a liar in front of the entire class when I tried to explain my diseases/disabilities
  • being marked off an exam for being physically unable to perform certain tasks
  • being failed for missing 3 labs when I was recovering from surgery and in and out of the ER
  • being forced to register with my university’s Disability Resource Center in order to remain in a class (even though they can’t provide any accommodations for me)
  • having to constantly prove I’m Disabled enough to require assistance but not too Disabled to be “of use” to society
  • asking for help with my bags from a flight attendant and being made to prove my disability, and then refused help
  • getting dirty looks when I don’t let my 61-year-old mother take a seat and take it instead
  • being refused adequate pain medicine because doctors are more concerned about tolerance and addiction than my quality of life
  • having messages of “health” forced down my throat by the media when it’s not attainable
  • being told I would be better dead than alive and non-vegan or vegetarian (impossible due to my health conditions)
  • having to leave university because there are no systems in place for people like me and I’m at the whims of ableist teachers
  • having doctors refuse to listen to me and attribute everything to mental illness…referring me to a psychiatrist for severe stomach pain that wound up being stomach and intestinal paralysis

Ableism takes many forms and comes in many experiences. It may be easy to focus on one aspect, on one story, on one person’s journey, but that will never address the root of the problem and if we ever want to eradicate ableism, we have to rip out the root and spray it with Round-Up.


I hope you found this blog post educational or found some value in it. If you did, please share it widely and comment below. I’d love to get your thoughts!

I’ll be following this blog post up with one on ableist language so stay tuned for that!




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s