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Ableism (/ˈbəlɪzəm/; also known as ablism,[1] disablism (British English), anapirophobia, anapirism, and disability discrimination) is discrimination and social prejudice against people with disabilities and/or people who are perceived to be disabled. Ableism characterizes people who are defined by their disabilities as inferior to the non-disabled.[2] On this basis, people are assigned or denied certain perceived abilities, skills, or character orientations.

Although ableism and disablism are both terms which describe disability discrimination, the emphasis for each of these terms is slightly different. Ableism is discrimination in favor of non-disabled people. Disablism is discrimination against disabled people.[3]

There are stereotypes which are either associated with disability in general, or they are associated with specific disabilities (for instance the presumption that all disabled people want to be cured, the presumption that wheelchair users also have an intellectual disability or the presumption that blind people have some special form of insight).[4] These stereotypes, in turn, serve as a justification for ableist practices and reinforce discriminatory attitudes and behaviors toward people who are disabled.[5] Labeling affects people when it limits their options for action or changes their identity.[6]

In ableist societies, disabled people are considered less valuable, or they are even seen as expendable. The eugenics movement of the early 20th century is considered an expression of widespread ableism.

Ableism can also be better understood by reading literature which is written and published by those who experience disability and ableism first-hand. Disability Studies is an academic discipline which is also beneficial when non-disabled people pursue it in order to gain a better understanding of ableism.


Originating from -able (in disable, disabled) and -ism (in racism, sexism); its first known use occurred in 1985–1990.[7][8]



Ableism in Canada refers to a set of discourses, behaviors, and structures that express feelings of anxiety, fear, hostility, and antipathy towards people with disabilities in Canada.

The specific types of discrimination that have occurred or are still occurring in Canada include the inability to access important facilities such as infrastructure within the transport network, restrictive immigration policies, involuntary sterilization to stop people with disabilities from having offspring, barriers to employment opportunities, wages that are insufficient to maintain a minimal standard of living, and institutionalization of people with disabilities in substandard conditions.[9]

Austerity measures implemented by the government of Canada have also at times been referred to as ableist, such as funding cuts that put people with disabilities at risk of living in abusive arrangements.[10]

Nazi Germany[edit]

In 1939 Hitler signed the secret euthanasia program decree, Aktion T4, which authorized the killing of selected patients diagnosed with chronic neurological and psychiatric disorders. This program killed about 70,000 people with disabilities before it was officially halted by Hitler in 1941 under public pressure, and it was unofficially continued out of the public eye, killing a total of 200,000 or more by the end of Hitler's reign in 1945.[11]

United Kingdom[edit]

A poster in gold colors and line art, showing three people: a large menacing man, a small frail man, and a woman in academic robes; the wording is "She. It is time I got out of this place. Where Shall I Find The Key? Convicts Lunatics and Women! Have no vote for Parliament"
A poster of the British suffrage movement, attacking the fact that women were placed next to "lunatics" and convicts in being unable to vote. Ableist and eugenicist ideas were often found in suffrage rhetoric.

In the UK, disability discrimination became unlawful as a result of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, and the Disability Discrimination Act 2005. These were later superseded, retaining the substantive law, by the Equality Act 2010. The Equality Act 2010 brought together protections against multiple areas of discriminatory behavior (disability, race, religion and belief, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, age and pregnancy – the so-called 'protected characteristics').[citation needed]

Under EA2010 there are prohibitions addressing several forms of discrimination: direct discrimination (s.13(1) Equality Act 2010), indirect discrimination (s.6 and s.19 Equality Act 2010, harassment (s.26 Equality Act 2010), victimisation (s.27(2) Equality Act 2010), discrimination arising from disability (s.15(1) Equality Act 2010 and failure to make reasonable adjustments (s.20 Equality Act 2010).[citation needed]

Part 2, Chapter 1, Section 6, of the Equality Act 2010 states that:

"A person P has a disability if

(a) P has a physical or mental impairment, and

(b) the impairment has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on P's ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities."

(As with any English, for the purposes of the interpretation of the Equality Act 2010, and, for the purposes of righteousness, both phonetically and otherwise derived undertones apparently implied by the nomenclature and numbering manifest in the phrase "Part 2, Chapter 1, Section 6" as well as in the abbreviated "P" which takes the place of "person" in the document, are irrelevant.)

United States[edit]

Before the 1800s, the perspective of disability was often from a religious point of view. Individuals with disability were seen as evil or possessed by the devil.[12][unreliable source?] Much like many minority groups, disabled Americans were often segregated and denied certain rights for a majority of American history.[13] In the 1800s, a shift from a religious view to a more scientific view took place and caused more individuals with disabilities to be examined.[14] Public stigma began to change after World War II when many Americans returned home with disabilities. In the 1960s, following the civil rights movement in America, the world began the disabled rights movement. The movement was intended to give all individuals with disabilities equal rights and opportunities. Until the 1970s, ableism in the United States was often codified into law. For example, in many jurisdictions, so-called "ugly laws" barred people from appearing in public if they had diseases or disfigurements that were considered unsightly.[15]

Rehabilitation Act of 1973[edit]

Section 504 and other sections of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 enacted into law certain civil penalties for failing to make public places comply with access codes known as the ADA Access Guidelines (ADAAG). These laws prohibit direct discrimination against disabled people in government programs, employment, public transit, and public accommodations like stores and restaurants.

Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act of 1984[edit]

The Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act was passed to promote the fundamental right to vote by improving access for handicapped and elderly individuals to registration facilities and polling places for Federal elections by requiring access to polling places used in Federal elections and available registration and voting aids, such as instructions in large type [16]

Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988[edit]

The federal Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988 prohibits housing discrimination on the basis of mental or physical disability and requires that newly constructed multi-family housing meet certain access guidelines while requiring landlords to allow disabled persons to modify existing dwellings for accessibility. The law also protects people with mental disabilities by prohibiting discrimination in housing and allowing people with mental illness or any other disability to live where they choose.

Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990[edit]

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) was passed on July 26, 1990, during the George H. W. Bush administration and amended on January 1, 2009. The act gave individuals with disabilities civil rights protections.[17]

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act[edit]

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) ensures students with a disability are provided with Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) that is tailored to their individual needs. IDEA was previously known as the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA) from 1975 to 1990. In 1990, the United States Congress reauthorized EHA and changed the title to IDEA (Public Law No. 94-142). Overall, the goal of IDEA is to provide children with disabilities the same opportunity for education as those students who do not have a disability.

UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities[edit]

In May 2012, the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was ratified. The document establishes the inadmissibility of discrimination on the basis of disability, including in employment. In addition, the amendments create a legal basis for significantly expanding opportunities to protect the rights of persons with disabilities, including in the administrative procedure and in court. The law defined specific obligations that all owners of facilities and service providers must fulfill to create conditions for disabled people equal to the rest.[18]


In 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act was put in place to prohibit private employers, state and local government, employment agencies and labor unions from discrimination against qualified disabled people in job applications, when hiring, firing, advancement in workplace, compensation, training, and on other terms, conditions and privileges of employment.[19] The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, also known as the EEOC also plays a part in fighting against ableism by being responsible for enforcing federal laws that make it illegal to discriminate against a job applicant or an employee because of the person's race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy, gender identity, and sexual orientation), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information.[20] Despite legislation to reduce disability discrimination, roughly 13.3 million Americans with disabilities report difficulty finding a job.[21]

Employers and managers are often concerned about the potential cost associated with providing accommodations to employees with disabilities.[22] However, many accommodations have a cost of $0 (59% in a survey of employers conducted by JAN[23]), and accommodation costs may be offset by the savings associated with employing people with disabilities (higher performance, lower turnover costs).[24]


In England, Scotland and Wales it is permitted for an abortion to be performed on the basis of the foetus having physical or mental abnormalities.[25]


Ableism often makes the world inaccessible to disabled people, especially in schools. For example, a disabled student may need to read text instead of listening to a tape recording of the text. In the past, schools have focused too much on fixing the disability, but due to progressive reforms, schools are now focused on minimizing the impact of a student's disability, and giving support, skills, and more opportunities to live a full life. Moreover, schools are required to maximize access to their entire community.[26] In 2004, Congress made into law the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which states that free and appropriate education is eligible to children with disabilities with insurance of necessary services.[27] Congress later amended the law, in 2015, to include the Every Student Succeeds Act, which guarantees equal opportunity for people with disabilities full participation in society, and the tools for overall independent success.


Disabilities are not only misrepresented in the media but often underrepresented as well. While roughly 20 percent of the US population is disabled, only 2 percent of characters played in television and film have a disability.[28] 95 percent of the time, disabled characters are played by actors and actresses who are not disabled.[29]

These common ways of framing disability are heavily criticized for being dehumanizing and failing to place importance on the perspectives of disabled people.

Disabled villain[edit]

One common form of media depiction of disability is to portray villains with a mental or physical disability. Lindsey Row-Heyveld notes, for instance, "that villainous pirates are scraggly, wizened, and inevitably kitted out with a peg leg, eye patch, or hook hand whereas heroic pirates look like Johnny Depp's Jack Sparrow."[30] The disability of the villain is meant to separate them from the average viewer and dehumanize the antagonist. As a result, stigma forms surrounding the disability and the individuals that live with it.

Inspiration porn[edit]

Inspiration porn is the use of disabled people performing ordinary tasks as a form of inspiration.[31] Criticisms of inspiration porn say that it distances disabled people from individuals who are not disabled and portrays disability as an obstacle to overcome or rehab.[32][33]

Pitied character[edit]

In many forms of media such as films and articles a disabled person is portrayed as a character who is viewed as less than able, different, and an "outcast." Hayes & Black (2003) explore Hollywood films as the discourse of pity towards disability as a problem of social, physical, and emotional confinement.[34] The aspect of pity is heightened through the storylines of media focusing on the individual's weaknesses as opposed to strengths and therefore leaving audiences a negative and ableist portrayal towards disability.

Supercrip stereotype[edit]

The supercrip narrative is generally a story of a person with an apparent disability who is able to "overcome" their physical differences and somehow accomplish an impressive task. In Thomas Hehir's "Eliminating Ableism in Education," he uses the example of a blind man who climbs Mount Everest as an example of the supercrip narrative.[35] The Paralympics are another example of the supercrip stereotype, since they generate a large amount of media attention, and demonstrate disabled people doing extremely strenuous physical tasks. Although at face value, this may appear inspiring, Hehir explains that many people with disabilities can view these news stories as setting unrealistic expectations.[35] Additionally, Hehir mentions that supercrip stories imply that disabled people are required to overcome their disabilities by performing these impressive tasks to be seen as an equal and avoid pity from those without disabilities.[35]


A runner in the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games

Sports are often an area of society in which ableism is evident. In sports media, disabled athletes are often portrayed to be inferior.[36] When disabled athletes are discussed in the media, there is often an emphasis on rehabilitation and the road to recovery, which is inherently a negative view on the disability.[37] Oscar Pistorius is a South African runner who competed in the 2004, 2008, and 2012 Paralympics and the 2012 Olympic games in London. Pistorius was the first double amputee athlete to compete in the Olympic games.[38] While media coverage focused on inspiration and competition during his time in the Paralympic games, it shifted to questioning whether his prosthetic legs gave him an advantage while competing in the Olympic games.[39][40]

Types of ableism[edit]

Physical ableism[edit]

Hate or discrimination based on a person's physical appearance

Mental ableism[edit]

Discrimination based on mental health conditions and cognitive differences.

Medical ableism[edit]

Medical ableism exists both interpersonally (as healthcare providers can be ableist) and systemically, as decisions determined by medical institutions and caregivers may prevent the exercise of rights from disabled patients like autonomy and making decisions. The medical model of disability can be used to justify medical ableism.

Structural ableism[edit]

Failing to provide accessibility tools like ramp, wheelchair, special education equipments, etc.[41]

Cultural ableism[edit]

Behavioural cultural, attitudinal and social patterns that may discriminate against dignity of disabilty symptoms, deny, invisibilise, dismiss special needs or may make disability rights and accessibility unattainable.

Internalised ableism[edit]

"Internalised ableism" is when a disabled person discriminates against themself and other disabled people by holding the view that disability is something to be ashamed of, or something to be hide, or by refusing accessibility or support. Internalised ableism may be a result of mistreatment with individuals with disability.[42] It is a form of gaslighting from society.

Hostile ableism[edit]

It is a cultural or social kind of ableism when people get hostile against disability symptoms or phenotypes of the disabled person.

Benevolent ableism and ambivalent ableism[edit]

Ableism often has a benevolent appearance. People treat the disabled person well, yet also like a child ("infantilisation"), instead of considering them as full grown adults. Examples include ignoring disabilities, not respecting the life experiences of the disabled person, microaggression, not considering the opinion of the disabled person in important decision making, invasion of privacy or personal boundaries, forced corrective measures, unwanted help, not listening to the special needs, etc.[43]

Ambivalent ableism can be characterized as somewhere inbetween hostile and benevolent ableism.

Causes of ableism[edit]

Ableism may have evolutionary and existential origins (fear of contagion, fear of death). It may also be rooted in belief systems (Social Darwinism, Meritocracy), language (“suffering from” disability), and unconscious biases.[44]

Prevention of ableism[edit]

Some strategies to prevent ableism may be

  • Public awareness about ableism
  • Awareness on less-known conditions and invisible disabilities
  • Teaching about neurodiversity and human diversity
  • Public discussion on case studies and examples of ableism
  • Encouragement to embrace mental health conditions.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Oxford University Press, "Oxford Dictionaries Online: 'ableism'", Oxford Dictionaries Online, Retrieved 12 March 201h.
  2. ^ Linton, Simi (1998). Claiming Disability Knowledge and Identity. New York: New York University Press. p. 9.
  3. ^ "Disablism and ableism | Disability charity Scope UK". Scope. Retrieved 2020-11-21.
  4. ^ "Sutherland, A.T. 'Disabled We Stand', Chapter 6 'Stereotypes of Disability', Souvenir Press, 1982" (PDF).
  5. ^ Wüllenweber, Ernst; Theunissen, Georg; Mühl, Heinz (2006). Pädagogik bei geistigen Behinderungen: ein Handbuch für Studium und Praxis (Education for intellectual disabilities: A manual for study and practice) (in German). Kohlhammer Verlag. p. 149. ISBN 3-17-018437-7. Retrieved January 17, 2012.
  6. ^ "Geistige Behinderung – Normtheorien nach Speck und Goffman". Retrieved 2014-05-12.
  7. ^ "Definition of ABLEISM". Retrieved 1 April 2019.
  8. ^ "ableism". Unabridged. Random House.
  9. ^ "Policy on ableism and discrimination based on disability". Ontario Human Rights Commission. Retrieved 26 August 2018.
  10. ^ Tutton, Michael (4 June 2018). "'Ableist' bias left people with disabilities without housing, N.S. inquiry told". National Post. Retrieved 26 August 2018.
  11. ^ "T4 Program – Definition and History". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 1 April 2019.
  12. ^ "History Perspective of Ableism in America - Ableism".
  13. ^ Faville, Andrea. "A Civil Rights History: Americans with Disabilities". Knight Chair in Political Reporting.
  14. ^ "Ableism". NCCJ.
  15. ^ "The Ugly Laws: Disability In Public". 6 September 2011. Retrieved 1 April 2019.
  16. ^ "A Guide to Disability Rights Laws". Retrieved 1 April 2019.
  17. ^ " homepage". Retrieved 2018-04-03.
  18. ^ Дискриминация инвалидов запрещена в России с 1 января — РИА Новости (Discrimination of disabled people is prohibited in Russia since January 1 - RIA News)
  19. ^ "Employment (Title I)". Retrieved 1 April 2019.
  20. ^ "About the EEOC: Overview". Retrieved 1 April 2019.
  21. ^ "Facts about Institutional Ableism - Ableism".
  22. ^ Bonaccio, S., Connelly, C.E., Gellatly, I.R., Jetha, A., & Martin Ginis, K.A. (2020). The participation of people with disabilities in the workplace across the employment cycle: Employer concerns and research evidence. Journal of Business and Psychology, 35(2), 135-158.
  23. ^ Job Accommodation Network (Updated October 21, 2020). Workplace accommodations: Low cost, high impact. Retrieved 06/16/2021.
  24. ^ Fisher, S. L., & Connelly, C. E. (2020). Building the “Business Case” for Hiring People with Disabilities: A Financial Cost-Benefit Analysis Methodology and Example. Canadian Journal of Disability Studies, 9(4), 71-88.
  25. ^ Participation, Expert. "Abortion Act 1967". Retrieved 2020-06-17.
  26. ^ "About IDEA – Individuals with Disabilities Education Act". Retrieved 1 April 2019.
  27. ^ "Confronting Ableism – Educational Leadership". Retrieved 1 April 2019.
  28. ^ "The Ruderman White Paper on the Challenge to Create More Authentic Disability Casting and Representation on TV". Ruderman Family Foundation. Retrieved 2018-04-12.
  29. ^ Woodburn, Danny; Kopić, Kristina (July 2016). "The Ruderman White Paper on Employment of Actors with Disabilities in Television" (PDF). Ruderman Family Foundation.
  30. ^ Row-Heyveld, Lindsey (2015). "Reading Batman, Writing X-Men Superpowers and Disabilities in the First-Year Seminar" (PDF). Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition, and Culture. 15: 519–526. doi:10.1215/15314200-2917105. S2CID 146299487.
  31. ^ Young, Stella. "I'm not your inspiration, thank you very much". Retrieved 2021-04-11.
  32. ^ Rakowitz, Rebecca (1 December 2016). "Inspiration porn: A look at the objectification of the disabled community". The Crimson White. University of Alabama. Archived from the original on 2 December 2016.
  33. ^ Mitchell, Kate (17 July 2017). "On Inspiration Porn". Huffington Post. Retrieved 5 March 2018.
  34. ^ Hayes, Michael; Black, Rhonda (15 April 2003). "Troubling Signs: Disability, Hollywood Movies and the Construction of a Discourse of Pity". Disability Studies Quarterly. 23 (2). doi:10.18061/dsq.v23i2.419. ISSN 2159-8371.
  35. ^ a b c Hehir, Thomas (2002). "Eliminating Ableism in Education". Harvard Educational Review. 72 (1): 1–33. doi:10.17763/haer.72.1.03866528702g2105. ISSN 0017-8055.
  36. ^ DePauw, K. P. (1997). "The (in)visibility of disability: Cultural contexts and sporting bodies.". Quest. 49 (4): 416–430. doi:10.1080/00336297.1997.10484258.
  37. ^ Cherney, J. L.; Lindemann, K.; Hardin, M. (2015). "Research in communication, disability, and sport". Communication & Sport. 3 (1): 8–26. doi:10.1177/2167479513514847. S2CID 144783567.
  38. ^ Robert Klemko (10 August 2012), "Oscar Pistorius makes history, leaves without medal", USA Today, archived from the original on 11 August 2012.
  39. ^ Swartz, L.; Watermeyer, B. (2008). "Cyborg anxiety: Oscar Pistorius and the boundaries of what it means to be human". Disability & Society. 23 (2): 187–190. doi:10.1080/09687590701841232. S2CID 144555912.
  40. ^ Smith, L. R. (2015). "The blade runner: The discourses surrounding Oscar Pistorius in the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics". Communication & Sport. 3 (4): 390–410. doi:10.1177/2167479513519979. S2CID 144260172.
  41. ^ "Ableism 101 Part One: What is Ableism? What is Disability? | Disability Resources". University of Arizona. Retrieved 10 January 2021.
  42. ^ Campbell, Fiona Kumari (2009). "Internalised Ableism: The Tyranny Within". Contours of Ableism. Palgrave Macmillan UK. pp. 16–29. doi:10.1057/9780230245181_2. ISBN 978-1-349-36790-0. Retrieved 10 January 2021 – via Springer Link.
  43. ^ Nario‐Redmond, Michelle R.; Kemerling, Alexia A.; Silverman, Arielle (10 June 2019). "Hostile, Benevolent, and Ambivalent Ableism: Contemporary Manifestations". Journal of Social Issues. 75 (3): 726–756. doi:10.1111/josi.12337. Retrieved 10 January 2021 – via Wiley Online Library.
  44. ^ "Disability Prejudice: Causes, Consequences, and Implications for Policymakers". Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues.


Further reading[edit]

  • Walter Fandrey: Krüppel, Idioten, Irre: zur Sozialgeschichte behinderter Menschen in Deutschland (Cripples, idiots, madmen: the social history of disabled people in Germany) (in German) ISBN 978-3-925344-71-8
  • Susan Schweik: The Ugly Laws: Disability in Public (History of Disability), ISBN 0-8147-8361-9
  • James K. Shaver: Handicapism and Equal Opportunity: Teaching About the Disabled in Social Studies, ISBN 978-0-939068-01-2

External links[edit]