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Ableism: What it Means and How To Stop Being Ableist

Edited by: Zenya Siyad


More than two billion people, i.e. 37.5 percent of the world's population, lives with some form of disability. The world has failed to be accessible or respectful to disabled people. Capitalist societies discard anyone who isn’t an able bodied or ‘productive’ member of society. As participants in this exploitative economic system, we strip people with disabilities of their humanity and carry around prejudices against them. This prejudice and the subsequent discrimination against people with disabilities based on the belief that typical abilities are superior is termed as ableism. The root of ableism is based on the assumption that disabled people require ‘fixing’ and that people are defined by their disability. A report by the Law Commission of Ontario describes ableism as “a belief system, analogous to racism, sexism, or ageism, that sees persons with disabilities as being less worthy of respect and consideration, less able to contribute and participate, and of less inherent value than others.”


85 percent of disabled adults acquire their disability, they are not born with it. 

So it is wrong to assume that if you are not disabled now, you’ll never be. If that offends you, it means that you’ve internalized ableism. But the fact is that most acquired disabilities come from illness or accidents and cannot be prevented. So if it feels like ableism isn’t your problem, then this is a wake up call. Accessibility and disabled rights are human rights. As a first step towards advocating for equal rights for disabled people in medical care, education and employment, here are some things to keep in mind when interacting with a disabled person and some helpful suggestions to combat the ableism internalised in you through conditioning.


  1. Stop using ableist slurs: Ableism is the systematic exclusion of people with disabilities. It is most often expressed and reinforced through language. Terms like the “R” slur or “moron” were once prominent in medical textbooks and used at the time of segregation of people with disability (i.e. during a time of usage of forced sterilisation and institutionalisation). These terms are strong slurs against disabled people and should never be used. The ‘R’ slur in today’s usage also hammers away at the assumption that anyone with any form of disability lacks intelligence.


  1. Making everything about their disability: People are more than their disabilities. Disabled people are people. Not everything is about their physical state. They have careers, hobbies, significant others, pet peeves and hot takes. It should strike everyone that thirty seven percent of humankind in 2020 needs to reiterate that they are indeed human and deserve the same rights as anyone else. By realising the very high possibility of being disabled in the future, the onus of fighting this ableist tendency falls on every able bodied person.


  1. Don’t ask questions like “How did that happen?” “How did you get like that?” You are not entitled to someone’s medical past or present. Often, disabilities are linked to traumatic events and asking such unsolicited questions forces the person to revisit that trauma. On the other hand, saying things like “But you seem normal” isn’t a compliment. It is dismissive and erases the person’s experience with their disability. Moreover, ninety percent of disabilities aren’t apparent or ‘visible.’


  1. Use of patronising speech: Talking down to disabled people or using a slow tone is based on the assumption that disability has to mean the person is unintelligent or slow-witted. People randomly connect physical disabilities to intellectual ones and presume they’re more intelligent than the disabled person they’re communicating with. This is not limited to individual behavior but can be observed in the media as well. In the Bollywood movie “Sultan”, Salman Khan’s character says that when Shahrukh Khan stares into the eyes of a girl, she cannot resist his charms even though she’s blind. This is followed by the audience laughing at this ‘joke.’ Using a disabled person as a prop or a punchline assumes that they are ignorant and subhuman.The level of messed up speaks for itself.


  1. Labelling disabled people as “inspiring”: This is something termed as “inspiration porn” in disabled communities. Using someone’s condition to “inspire” yourself is base and disgusting. Terminally ill kids are not ‘brave’, they are suffering. People with limb differences aren’t “special” to be able to do what is only expected of an able bodied person. They are just living their life. Disabled people appreciate you not piling up your need for signs and omens on them. And no, putting instrumental music in the background of such disgusting romanticization doesn’t make it any better.


This article has been possible because of everything I’ve learnt from Kelly at @disabledinsight on instagram. Her account has helped me constantly challenge my biases and assumptions about disability. Also check out these instagram accounts to know more about disabled people, their day to day experiences and their fight against ableism:








Third year English undergraduate at Ashoka
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