Ableism and Disablism are forms of discrimination and social prejudice against people with disabilities. They can operate on individual levels as well as structural and societal levels. Discrimination against disabled individuals is prevalent. According to the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC), “disability continues to be the most often cited ground of discrimination under the Code in human rights claims made to the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario (HRTO).” (OHRC, 2018).
Below, we review these forms of discrimination and their impact on disabled individuals and communities.
Prejudicial beliefs and attitudes largely inform how disability and disabled individuals are perceived and treated. Broadly speaking, disability is construed as something that is abnormal and needs to be fixed. The social construction of what is ‘normal’ vs. what is ‘abnormal’ is informed by dominant views of disability that are ableist. As Davis (2006) informs us, however, “the ‘problem’ is not the person with disabilities; the problem is the way that normalcy is constructed to create the ‘problem’ of the disabled person.”
Ableism operates on the assumption that anyone who is disabled is somehow ‘less than’ — less important, less valued, and less worthy of the many privileges and rights nondisabled people are afforded. Ableism can involve stereotypes and generalizations of people with disabilities as well as the outright discrimination and exclusion of disabled people and communities.
Thomas Hehir defines ableism as “the devaluation of disability” — this contributes to the prevalent belief that it is better for disabled individuals to strive to do things in the same way as non-disabled individuals (Hehir, 2002). Ableism functions by maintaining an ideology of ‘normalcy’ wherein non-disabled is viewed as the superior norm. For instance, Annamma et al. (2013) define ableism as “a set of beliefs that guide cultural and institutional practices ascribing negative values to individuals with disabilities while deeming able-bodied and able-minded individuals as normal, therefore superior to their disabled counterparts.”
For Wolbring (2008), “ableism is one of the most societally entrenched and accepted isms.” Ableism operates on and within individual, structural, systemic, and cultural levels within society and specifically within our teaching and learning institutions. Ableism can be both easily perceived and apparent while also being less evident in certain contexts. Ableism shows up in our beliefs, our thoughts, our attitudes, and our judgments. Ableist attitudes contributed to the eugenics movement of the early 20th century and are at the heart of all inaccessible design plans and buildings. Ableism can be the belief that disability and disabled people can serve as forms of inspiration. Stella Young captures the heart of these ableist/inspiration tropes in her talk “I’m not your Inspiration, thank you very much.” Often, it is the unnamed ableism that operates on a systematic level that is most difficult to challenge and deconstruct. Disability advocate, Emily Ladau, echoes these sentiments when she writes that “often [ableism] is glaringly obvious, but in many cases it’s so insidious that it’s hard to articulate exactly why something is ableist. And that’s the crux of ableism, really” (2021).
The insidious nature of ableism lends itself to the very oppression and harm that ableism causes and produces. As Lydia Brown (2016) warns us, “ableism is not some arbitrary list of ‘bad words,’ as much as language is a tool of oppression. Ableism is violence, and it kills.” Maria Palacios’ poem, Naming Ableism, captures much of what encountering ableism on a daily basis looks like. Palacsio writes that “ableism is when you turn your head the other way and say that your able-bodied privilege is not privilege and refuse to see that your privilege is the face of my oppression.” We recommend reading the poem and reflecting on the different ways ableism shows up in your own life.
Ableism and Disablism
Some scholars draw distinctions between ableism and another ism: disablism.
Kumari Campbell (2019) defines disablism as “a set of assumptions (conscious or unconscious) and practices that promote the differential or unequal treatment of people because of actual or presumed disabilities.” As Wolbring (2008) states, “every ism has two components. Something we value and something we do not. Ableism values certain abilities, which leads to disablism the discrimination against the ‘less able’.” Kattari (2015) defines able-bodied privilege as “the set of unearned privileges held by individuals without disabilities.” For Kattari, ableism and able-bodied privilege are “connected systems that maintain stratification around disability” (2015). In short, a system or practice that privileges some will in turn oppress others.
Ableism and Disablism are often conflated and used interchangeably. Both terms point to prejudicial attitudes toward disability, but the emphasis is different. Unpacking the different nuances attached to both these terms is important as we begin to think about how we can deconstruct and eradicate discrimination against disabled individuals and start promoting accessibility writ large.
Ableism and Disablism are forms of discrimination and social prejudice against people with disabilities. These forms of discrimination operate on and within individual, structural, systemic, and cultural levels within. The prevalence of ableist/disablist actions and thoughts means that we often approach disability as something to be accommodated, rather than acknowledging the systems of oppression and barriers that we have constructed that harm disabled individuals. Challenging ableist assumptions and practices is necessary for promoting access and accessibility for disabled individuals and communities.