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Perhaps you recently came across the term “ableism” in a blog, social media post, or elsewhere on the internet. You vaguely recognized the term, but you didn’t quite understand what it meant.
Or maybe a classmate, friend, or co-worker called out a comment you made, saying “That’s ableist.” But you didn’t know exactly why what you said was problematic.
Ableism describes any prejudice, bias, and discrimination directed toward people living with disabilities.
Like other types of prejudice, ableism has deep roots in the very structure of society. In short, it’s not just a trending topic or a recent issue. In many places, society has long considered all manner of physical and mental health concerns signs of inferiority — and relegated those with so-called “flaws” to a lower social status.
But the concept of ableism has drawn increasing attention in recent years. More and more people continue to point out ableist language, beliefs, and attitudes as things to challenge and avoid.
Yet ableism can include a broad range of behaviors, words, and beliefs, some of which may not seem directly harmful or unkind. That’s why recognizing ableism can sometimes prove difficult.
Even so, it’s always worth making the effort. Boosting your awareness of ableism can help you examine how it shows up in your own behavior and explore ways to make changes.
Not sure where to start? Just keep reading. Our guide below offers an overview of ableism, along with examples, its impact, and ways to address it.
If you don’t live with a disability yourself, you may not realize the numerous ways society pushes people with disabilities to the fringes.
As a start, it might help to unpack what “disability” means. This term might automatically bring to mind people with noticeable physical conditions.
- a person who uses a wheelchair
- a blind person who uses a sight stick
- a person who has only one arm
But according to the Americans with Disabilities Act, a disability can include any physical or mental health condition or symptom that significantly affects at least one major activity of daily life.
Disabilities can affect the ability to:
- stand, walk, or move from place to place
- leave home
- see, hear, breathe, or eat and drink
- learn and remember information
- handle work responsibilities
- interact with others, including co-workers, friends, loved ones, and anyone else
- shower, use the bathroom, or handle other basic needs
Mocking or dismissing someone with a disability might be a pretty obvious form of ableism, but ableism doesn’t always happen intentionally. Maybe you just never realized chronic illness or mental health conditions counted as disabilities.
But ableism often begins with the failure to acknowledge the different types of disabilities people can experience. You may not have any negative intentions or ill will, but unintentional ableism can still have a major impact.
The list below is far from exhaustive, but it does detail some of the ways ableism commonly occurs.
Ableism can include:
- believing people with disabilities have less value and worth
- assuming they want to be “healed” or can “overcome” a disability
- suggesting they’re “inspirational” for handling everyday activities and routine tasks
- assuming they lead an unhappy, limited life
- assuming they can’t do things for themselves
- using words like “normal” and “healthy” to describe non-disabled people
- asking intrusive questions about someone’s disability
- touching someone, or any equipment or devices they use, without permission
- ignoring requests for accommodations or refusing to acknowledge someone’s disability
- refusing to use the terms someone requests, like “deaf person,” “neurodivergent,” or “wheelchair user”
- using ableist language, especially after someone asks you to stop
Ableism can be callous and cruel. Some people, for instance, treat people with disabilities as if their needs and desires don’t matter.
But you’ll notice, too, that ableism can take different forms, like pity. You might feel sorry for someone with a disability because you falsely assume they can’t fully enjoy or participate in life.
Ableism can also stem from good intentions. Maybe a classmate who uses a cane drops their backpack. You rush to pick it up and gather their spilled belongings without waiting to ask if they’d like any assistance.
Maybe they even say, “Oh, I’ve got it, thanks.” But you continue to insist they need your help.
This chart details a few more specific examples.
|Example||Why it counts as ableism||What to say instead|
|Your friend’s teenage son has cystic fibrosis and uses a breathing tube. One day you say to your friend, while he’s in the room, “That’s so incredible he goes to school. You must be so proud of him.”||Even though you’re talking about your friend’s son, you completely ignore him. Plus, praising someone with a disability for doing something nondisabled people do daily can also ableist.||It’s just fine to praise an achievement — something you’d compliment anyone for. Maybe you’d say, “Your mom told me you had a painting in the district art contest. That’s pretty impressive!|
|At work one day, you receive a pamphlet on exercise recommendations. The pamphlet states, “Even simple exercises like walking and yoga can offer health benefits. The best part? Anyone can do these exercises — no equipment needed.”||Not everyone can walk or do yoga, for one. But this language also excludes people of different ability levels. Even some people able to do these activities may not find them “simple.”||The pamphlet might note, “Any type of physical activity can offer health benefits.” It could then list a variety of exercises, including examples for people using their arms only, their legs only, or their whole body.|
|You ask a co-worker who’s recently missed a lot of work how they’re doing. They thank you for asking and explain they live with chronic pain. Later, you say to your partner, “They look fine to me. I should say I have chronic pain and get some time off, too.”||People living with chronic pain face plenty of stigma and doubt, even from medical professionals. Denying or questioning a disability is always ableist. Remember, not all conditions have visible symptoms.||You might offer support to your co-worker by saying, “Thanks for sharing that with me. If I can do anything to offer support, just let me know.”|
|You’re making plans with a group of friends to meet at the game after school. Everyone seems to be ignoring your friend who uses a wheelchair, so you ask if they plan to go. Another friend laughs. “Would they even enjoy a football game?”||Why couldn’t someone who uses a wheelchair enjoy watching a game? What’s more, ignoring or discussing people in front of them suggests they aren’t worth noticing or have no opinions worth sharing.||Instead of replying to the friend who made the remark, you might turn back to the friend being ignored and offer a direct invitation to join you at the game.|
Plenty of different factors play a part in ableism:
- Fear of disability. Meeting someone with a noticeable disability might prompt feelings of fear, discomfort, and disgust. You might think things like, “What if that happened to me?” or “I’d hate to live like that.”
- Uncertainty around how to behave. Should you acknowledge someone’s disability? Offer help? Say nothing about it? When you don’t know how to treat someone with a disability, you might respond by being extra nice or overly helpful — or completely ignoring them for fear of making a mistake.
- Lack of disability awareness. Knowing very little about disabilities in general can lead to intrusive questions and assumptions about what people do and don’t need. The fact that some people need certain accommodations may not even come to mind.
- Learned social behavior. Ableism can stem from attitudes you learn from your parents, peers, and even the media. Plenty of shows treat people with disabilities as plot points or inspirational stories rather than actual human beings — when they include them at all.
- Moral or religious beliefs. You might unconsciously judge someone’s disability if you link it to a choice or mistake they made. Some religious faiths also consider disabilities a type of divine punishment.
- Eugenics. The eugenics movement fueled the idea that only people with “ideal” traits should have children, or even continue to live. These beliefs, which led to the sterilization, imprisonment, and even murder of people with disabilities, still factor into disability prejudice.
Sometimes, ableism happens on an individual, or person-to-person level:
- You wear your favorite cologne to work because you have a date afterward, even though your office is scent-free.
- You complain when your roommate turns on closed captions during a movie, though you know they’re partially deaf.
- Your sister lives with bipolar disorder, and you tell a friend “they should lock her up because she’s completely nutso.”
These and other microaggressions can do a lot of damage, certainly. But institutional ableism — the ableist policies and practices present in many sectors of life — often reinforces, and even promotes, disability prejudice.
Examples of institutional (systemic) ableism include:
- separating students with physical and cognitive disabilities from their peers
- unequal access to healthcare
- inaccessible workplaces, parking lots, public transportation, school campuses, and websites
- sick leave policies that don’t include mental health conditions
- public buildings that lack accessible bathrooms or braille on signs and maps
Every person deserves the same opportunities and respect, but ableism denies these things to people with disabilities. It can also serve to limit their lives, sometimes more than the disability itself.
Some of the more obvious effects of ableism might include:
- pain and frustration that stem from blatant rudeness or patronizing attitudes
- lack of job opportunities or lower average income
- difficulty participating in everyday activities due to a lack of accommodations
But people who regularly face ableist attitudes might eventually begin to internalize, or absorb and believe, these messages.
Someone consistently treated as helpless may eventually give up attempting to make their own choices or try things for themselves, for example.
At the end of the day, discrimination, microaggressions, and continually closed doors send the message, “You’re not welcome. You don’t belong.”
Eventually, this lack of recognition and acceptance can contribute to:
- loneliness and isolation
- chronic stress
- anxiety and worry around future instances of ableism
- depression and a sense of hopelessness
A key step to avoiding ableism in your own behavior? Recognize that people with disabilities are, in fact, people — equal to nondisabled people in every way and worthy of the same respect.
Treating people with disabilities the same way you’d treat anyone else makes a good first step toward preventing ableism. Sure, this might seem pretty basic. But as noted above, one main factor driving ableism is the idea that people with disabilities are somehow “less human.”
Another essential step? Never assume you know what anyone needs. Instead, ask them directly, and then do what you can to offer any support they request.
Assumptions aren’t the only thing to avoid. Amplifying people living with disabilities, instead of speaking for them or over them, can help promote true acceptance and inclusivity.
You may not be able to challenge institutional ableism directly on every level, true. But pointing out a lack of accessibility where you notice it can make a difference when it comes to creating more inclusive and welcoming environments.
Some people do need accommodations to participate in the activities of everyday life. But here’s something to consider:
If you wear glasses or contact lenses, you have a disability that society has deemed acceptable. Your accommodations — those glasses or contacts you use daily — make it possible for you to participate in daily life.
Everyone deserves the same consideration and opportunities, no matter what disability they live with.
Questions to ask yourself
Not sure whether a question or remark might be ableist? It can help to ask yourself the following questions:
- Would I ask this question or make this comment to someone without a disability?
- Does this question or comment focus on the person’s disability, rather than the person themselves?
- Am I speaking for this person, assuming their needs, or deciding something for them without their consent?
- Do I really need to know this information?
- Am I expecting them to educate me about their disability, or disabilities in general?
Words can have a lasting impact, too
One more helpful way to check ableism at the door?
Familiarize yourself with terms and language that promote ableism and stigma — and then scratch them from your vocabulary.
A few examples:
- insane, crazy, nuts, psycho, loony
- addicted to, obsessed with
- spaz, idiot, moron
- stupid, dumb, lame, derp
Plenty of people use these words without any idea of where they come from, but they all have a problematic history.
You might reason, “Well, everyone says them,” or “I don’t mean them in a hurtful way.” Remember, though, that intent doesn’t always translate to impact.
It might seem tough to stop saying these words, but it’s absolutely possible. With a little consideration and creativity, you can probably even find a word that more accurately describes your feelings.
Ableism may be stitched into the fabric of society, but it’s possible to change the pattern and weave a more inclusive future. Of course, this change requires effort, not to mention some exploration of your own biases.
For many people living with a disability, the disability itself may have less of an effect on their quality of lifethan ableism and other discrimination they experience.
Pitying people with disabilities, or making assumptions about their lives and abilities, won’t do anything to counter ableism. But challenging yourself to explore your assumptions, and the reasons behind them, can help you begin to replace them with inclusivity, acceptance, and respect.
Learn more about ableism and how to address it:
- Ableism 101
- Anti-Oppression Resources
- Disabled People Don’t Need To Be “Fixed” — We Need A Cure For Ableism
- Why You Need to Stop Using These Words and Phrases
Crystal Raypole writes for Healthline and Psych Central. Her fields of interest include Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health, along with books, books, and more books. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues. She lives in Washington with her son and a lovably recalcitrant cat.