What Is Ableism?

Road markings for disabled parking

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What Is Ableism?

Ableism is discrimination against people with disabilities. The bias can be intentional or unintentional and is based on the belief that typical abilities, and the people who have them, are superior.

Ableism centers around the notion that people with disabilities are imperfect and need fixing. It can show up in ways ranging from personal to institutional, and it includes the many ways in which people with disabilities are considered "less than" non-disabled people.

The History of Ableism

The shift to recognize ableism began in the civil rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s, but the term wasn't coined until the 1980s by feminists in the United States. It was first used in writing in 1986 by the Council of the London Borough of Haringey in a press release.

Despite the term not being created until this past century, the history of ableism extends much further back. Back in the Middle Ages, differently-abled people were considered possessed by the devil or evil spirits. As a result, they weren't provided with the level of care or consideration that we now consider all people deserving of.

Connection to Eugenics

In the 1800s, the Eugenics movement was founded. Eugenics sought to further humanity by only breeding "desirable" characteristics into people. This idea that only certain people were deserving of carrying forth the human race was adopted by dictatorial government leaders like Adolf Hitler.

Eugenics is a racist and classist concept that encourages population control through mechanisms including forced sterilization and marriage screenings, and proponents of it consider European people the "best" race.

Progress has been made to help people understand that no one is inherently better than anyone else, regardless of our differing abilities. However, the current world we live in is one that is still deeply ableist.

Read on to learn more about how ableism manifests in our culture, and what you can do about it.

The Two Main Types of Ableism

Ableism is generally broken down into one of two types: physical and mental. Though a person could possibly behave in an ableist way about a different area of identity, these are the two most common.

Physical Ableism

This form of ableism is centered around the intentional or unintentional discrimination of people with physical disabilities. However, for people who are not disabled, these forms of discrimination may not be noticeable. That's because when you don't have to think about how others are functioning, there's a greater chance you won't realize they may be facing challenges.

Here are some examples of how physical ableism presents itself:

  • Buildings and signs that aren't accessible, such as ones that are not able to be traversed by people who use wheelchairs or signs that aren't available in braille
  • The presumption that someone who appears to have a disability is less intelligent than others
  • Casting non-disabled actors to play physically disabled people

Mental Ableism

Just like how physical ableism is discrimination against people with physical disabilities, mental ableism is discrimination, whether intentional or not, against people who are differently-abled mentally. These are some ways that people experience mental ableism.

  • Segregating students who are neurodivergent into separate classes and schools
  • Non-disabled people using words like "dumb," "crazy," "moron," "retarded," and "lame" in conversation
  • The legality of paying mentally disabled people below minimum wage

How to Know If You're Being Ableist

Ableism isn't always as obvious as a building that has no ramp for wheelchairs. It often shows up in subtle ways, and pretty much all people who aren't disabled take part in ableism, whether on occasion or regularly. Often, we have no idea we are doing it!

Here are some ableist behaviors that are common in our society, from the most obvious to the least.

Outright Discrimination

This form of ableism is the most overt. It is based on actions that specifically exclude disabled people.

Some examples of outright discrimination would be:

  • Not hiring a person for a job because of their disability
  • Choosing a meeting location that isn't accessible
  • Asking people invasive questions about their disabilities
  • Making a movie without closed captioning

Microaggressions

Unlike outright discrimination, which is fairly obvious to everyone, microaggressions are much more subtle.

The most common microaggressions against disabled people are the use of derogatory language about disabilities when people talk to one another. Saying things like, "That's so lame," "You're retarded," "I'm so OCD when it comes to cleaning," or "That girl is a psycho," are ableist microaggressions.

Additionally, phrases that are ground into our lexicon so thoroughly that we don't even give them a second thought before saying them are also microaggressions.

Think of referring to a group of people you don't think have enough skills as "the blind leading the blind," or when you think someone didn't listen to you close enough so you commented that your words "fell on deaf ears."

We usually mean no harm at all when we say things like that, but they are ableist statements that are harmful to disabled people.

Being a Part of Systemic or Institutional Ableism

It's tough not to be complicit in ableism when you live in a world that has it built into its very systems and structures.

To some extent, most non-disabled people are complicit in systemic ableism because we aren't all spending our time fighting against it. However, there are some ways that we can be particularly complicit. This includes not speaking up when you notice something ableist like a building that isn't accessible or an employer's hesitancy to hire a disabled person.

Generally, individuals don't create institutional ableism. That said, it is only through our individual work that we have the power to change it.

The Impact of Ableism

It should come as no surprise that ableism harms disabled people. It may harm them emotionally, such as when a blind person hears someone say that a situation is "like the blind leading the blind."

It can harm them physically, like when a disabled person has to go somewhere that hasn't been made accessible to them.

It harms them in academia, when a disabled person may lose the fight to be included with non-disabled classmates. And it can harm them in their livelihoods, as disabled people are presented with fewer job opportunities and lower wages, earning an average of 37% less annually.

How to be More Inclusive

Good news: you've already taken the first step to being less ableist just by learning about it! No changes can be made to be better until we know what we're doing wrong, and this is no exception.

Learning about how ableism presents itself in our society is the biggest tool to behave more inclusively.

Now that you understand ableism, what can you do when you are witness to it, and how can you avoid ableist behaviors in your life?

Here are some ideas:

  • If you're an employer, hire more people with disabilities
  • Stop using ableist language in your conversations
  • Don't assume that disabled people are less valuable than others, and speak to them just like you would anyone else
  • If you go to a place that isn't accessible to disabled people, speak up
  • Don't use accessible bathrooms or park in accessible parking spaces
  • Take stairs instead of elevators, so there is more space available for people in wheelchairs
  • Remember that disabled people aren't here to inspire others
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3 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Ableism. Oxford Reference.

  2. National Conference for Community and Justice. Ableism.

  3. Those with disabilities earn 37% less on average; gap is even wider in some states. American Institutes for Research.