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Most have heard about Racism or Sexism, but few know about Ableism[1]. Ableism is a word which is increasingly being seen, especially on social media. It's a single word which people are using instead of the longer phrases "disability discrimination" or "disability prejudice”. [2] In fact, the term ableism evolved from the disabled people rights movements in the United States and Britain during the 1960s and 1970s, and is of course central to disability studies scholars.[3]

Historical Perspective of Ableism

Middle Ages

Prior to the 1800’s it was believed that people with disabilities were evil and possessed by the devil or were being punished for a prior sin. As a result of these beliefs many people with disabilities were cast aside and left to die. Also, there were incidences where people were tortured and killed. [4]

During the 1800’s

A freak show in Rutland, Vermont in 1941

During the 1800’s there was a shift in thought that was the result of advances in the field of science resulted in a shift from a religious perspective to a scientific perspective. As a result, people with disabilities were hidden away in family homes, mental institutions or schools for the blind or deaf. Beginning with the Eugenics movement in the 1880’s many people with disabilities were forcibly sterilized. For those that were not hidden away they were put on display in freak shows and worked as performers in traveling circuses. [5]

After WWII

With the return home of WWI veterans there was a push for rehabilitation and vocational programs. The Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s also served to bring attention to the rights of people with disabilities. As a result of the civil rights movement there have been many acts signed into law that have opened up society to all individuals. One of the acts that had the largest impact on education was the Education of All Handicapped Children Act pf 1975 [6](later amended and renamed Individuals with Disabilities Education Act).

Everyday Ableism

Reality of Ableism extends beyond literal discriminatory acts to the way our culture views disabled people as a concept. [7] In fact, there is the belief behind Ableism that people with disabilities “need to be fixed or cannot function as full members of society” and that having a disability is a “a defect rather than a dimension of difference” [8]

Inaccessible Events

Perhaps the most obvious form of discrimination people with disabilities face is the inability to access places and services open to their able-bodied counterparts — even with laws in place to prevent such inequality. While most people think “just [putting] wheelchair ramps everywhere” is sufficient, true accessibility accommodates all types of disabilities, not just physical disabilities that specifically bind people to wheelchairs. [9] Accommodations can also include “braille, seeing-eye dogs/assistant dogs, ergonomic workspaces, easy to grip tools, closed captions … class note-takers, recording devices for lectures” and other services.

Ableist Language

Ableist language is any word or phrase that intentionally or inadvertently targets an individual with a disability [10] and it has become undeniably naturalized in the English language. Many people not only use words like “crazy,” “insane,” or “retarded” without a second thought, but many adamantly defend their use of these terms, criticizing anybody who questions their right to do so as too “politically correct” or “sensitive.” But this personal defense fails to recognize that ableist language is not about the words themselves so much since what their usage suggests the speaker feels about the individuals they represent. Other examples include “crazy,” “insane,” “lame,” “dumb,” “retarded,” “blind,” “deaf,” “idiot”, “maniac”, “psycho”.

Assuming No Autonomy

There is assumption that all individuals with disabilities need and want certain things. Assuming those individuals constantly need help without actually asking the person, is a common ableist experience. [11]

U.S. Police Kill a Person With Mental Illness Every 36 Hours

Assuming Disability Is Always Visible

People with non-apparent disabilities certainly face ableism as well. There is pervasive stigma surrounding mental illness, for example, and it can and often does lead to inequitable treatment [12], such as forced institutionalization and medication and a lack of agency in treating one’s mental health.

Objectification: Inspirational Porn

Inspirational porn [13], in a nutshell, is when a disabled person is viewed as “inspirational,” “brave,” or “special” for achieving ordinary, everyday tasks. Inspiration porn is particularly insidious on the Internet, where it takes the form of glib memes branded with absurd slogans like “The only disability in life is a bad attitude.” Inspiration porn is a form of objectifying and Othering disabled people. It sends a signal that disabled people do not deserve to live life like everyone else, so it’s cute or heartwarming when they do. [14]

<I'm not your inspiration, thank you very much>[15]

Stella Young is a comedian and journalist who happens to go about her day in a wheelchair — a fact that doesn't, she'd like to make clear, automatically turn her into a noble inspiration to all humanity. In this very funny talk, Young breaks down society's habit of turning disabled people into "inspiration porn."

Discrimination and Ableism in Entertainment

In television and movies, people with disabilities portrayed the villain, the victim or the source of entertainment. Also, People with disabilities have been a common source of material for comedians.[16]

<I got 99 problems... palsy is just one> [17]

Maysoon Zayid explains that realizing the entertainment industry’s bias towards beautiful people helped set her on a path to comedy.

Moving Beyond

Accessibility Symbol

Left, the old symbol; right, the new accessibility icon (Accessible Icon Project)

During the past few years, there has been a push to update the International Symbol of Access icon to an updated one created by Sara Hendren and Brian Glenney. Some large cities like New York City have made important decisions to adopt the newer, more engaged, active depiction of a person in a wheel chair where the person’s head is forward, arm is pointing back ward and the overall icon depicts motion and indicates that the person in the wheelchair is in control of his/her own mobility.[18]


The Ontario Code[19] protects people in Ontario with disabilities from discrimination and harassment under the ground of “disability.” This protection extends to five “social areas” [20]:


Don't Discriminate: We're all the same on the inside

There is the myth that disabled people are eternal children. Even when they don’t realize it, nondisabled people often talk to disabled people as they would talk to children, in syrupy, high-pitched tones. If they’re adults, talk to them as though they’re adults. If you’re talking to a disabled child, make sure you’re talking to that child in the same way you would talk to a nondisabled child, regardless of their cognitive or verbal ability. Presuming competence is the best thing you can do for a disabled person.[21]

See also


  8. Laura Smith, Pamela F. Foley, and Michael P. Chaney, “Addressing Classism, Ableism, and Heterosexism in Counselor Education”, Journal of Counseling & Development, Summer 2008, Volume 86, pp 303-309.
  18. Papa, R., Eadens, D. M., Eadens, D. W., & SpringerLINK ebooks - Education. (2016). Social justice instruction: Empowerment on the chalkboard (1st 2016 ed.). New York: Springer. doi:10.1007/978-3-319-12349-3