Friday, January 23, 2015


I understand ableism as a system that oppresses individuals and communities based on assumed physical and cognitive abilities. These widely held assumptions are based on perceived deviations from taken-for-granted physical and cognitive norms. Ableism is more than individual acts of discrimination against people with disabilities; it is built into the structures of society. Special education classrooms, short busses, and side doors with ramps, for example, send messages to people from a young age about how difference is understood and (de)valued in Western society. These messages, in turn, shape people’s thinking and subsequent behavior toward people with disabilities and people’s understanding of themselves as abled/disabled. 

Importantly, ableism intersects with other oppressive systems such as white supremacy, patriarchy, colonialism, imperialism, and capitalism and has shifted as dominant beliefs regarding ability and normality have shifted over time. Racialized portrayals of people as intellectually inferior or mentally abnormal/unhealthy, for instance, have been historically drawn on to justify colonial conquests. Perceptions of disability are always already bound up with ideas about race, gender, sexuality, and social and economic value. The social significance of ableism undoubtedly differs for different folks and across cultures. Within the United States, for example, the ruling ideology of individualism has major implications for people with disabilities. Autonomy and independence, concepts themselves deeply rooted in liberal humanism, are constantly reaffirmed as inherently valuable and desirable. These concepts are rarely called into question. Subsequently, within Western culture, conceptions of people with disabilities as deficient, flawed, or incomplete are normalized and naturalized. Notions of humans as autonomous, singular, and bounded entities, an idea deeply ingrained in Western culture, fuel ableism and hinder understandings of all people as fundamentally interdependent and necessarily bound up in one another.

While many people don’t have the privilege of choosing to ignore how ableism and ableist assumptions perpetually shape their interactions and fuel their marginalization, others can disregard the fact that they reap social and economic benefits through ableism at the expense of others. That being said, and without homogenizing the way in which ableism differentially impacts people’s lives, I think that a system that ranks and values people in relation to a hegemonic conception of physical and cognitive (including both intellectual and psychological) normality is ultimately deleterious for all.


  1. For you and others who will be posting: how do we get typical others to grasp the concept of ableism?

    Look for create post. Alternatively email me at and I will post fr you.

  2. I see nowhere on the page that says create post

  3. This is my post post for ableism, not a comment. I also cannot figure out how to create a new post. So here goes...

    To me it is a system of beliefs, attitudes, actions, or processes in which meaning and value are imposed onto particular minds and bodies, that are not considered to be normal. Interestingly enough, when we think of “isms” there is usually some type of majority power at work. Yet when it comes to disability, there are about 1 billion people with disabilities in the world (maybe this state is a little dated). Unless I am completely wrong, that is roughly are ratio of 1 in 7 people. Defining ableism really requires a critique of how people have come to know what they think they know about certain people of groups of people- in this case persons with disabilities.

    I work in the disability rights clinic and we deal with ableism on a regular basis. There are employers, teachers, bosses, supervisors, etc., who make many assumptions about what people with various types of disabilities can NOT do. When this happens we find examples of discrimination that are, as we have discussed, not necessarily intentional. Rarely do people in general consider what people with disabilities CAN do when it comes to things such as employment or schooling.

    Combating ableism requires "un-learning" in my opinion.

  4. Brian, I completely agree that combating ableism requires a lot of unlearning and unsettling. I think this entails forcing people to question their taken-for-granted assumptions and constantly, vigilantly reflecting on our own. To your question, Bill, I think the range of posts from this week demonstrate that the concept of ableism encompasses a lot. While law is important in addressing/reducing the effects of ableism, education can play a huge role in getting people to understand what ableism is actually about and its pervasive effects and manifestations. While I think as of now schools predominantly serve to promote and uphold ableism, I hold out hope that schools are one place where education surrounding ableism could occur, through both critical pedagogy and massive structural and policy changes that value difference instead of viewing different as deficient.