Shining a Light on Ableism



I’ve always been taught to treat those around me with equal respect. My parents raised me to be aware of the oppression that exists in the world, and how not to become a contributor. But raising a child in Utah suburbs tends to lead to limited exposure to diversity. My classmates, friends, even teachers were mostly white, middle class, religious, cisgendered kids with a generally conservative set of beliefs. But as I became more educated about myself and the world around me, I began to reach out for that exposure. Slowly my world became more vibrant as I tried to understand the experiences of those who were different from me. Making friends with, reading books by/about, and watching films about people who experience the world differently than I did, shined a light on the oppression and stigma faced by more marginalized groups. Through this practice of seeking out difference through everyday life, I am becoming a more rounded person with a better understanding of my privilege. Coupled with my interest in gender studies, queer theory and feminism, I considered my knowledge on oppression quite versatile. But in the past few years I have come to realize how I have internalized and contributed to yet another “ism”--ableism.

The formal definition of Ableism is: “discrimination in favor of able-bodied people.”. But I’d like to take a minute to unpack that, and determine what forms such discrimination often takes.  

Racism, sexism, even ageism along with other forms of oppression have received historical recognition, and have been legitimized as stigmatizing behavior that puts marginalized groups at a disadvantage. But ableism seems to be the -ism that gets swept under the rug, mostly because people are unable to distinguish ableist behavior from mainstream thinking. Ultimately, ableism occurs because this world was made by and for able bodied people --which is also the reason disability is as socially constructed as gender, but that’s for another article.

The most common practice of ableist discrimination is a lack of representation in society. The perceived invisibility of the disabled community in media, politics, society and day to day life is, in part, a result of the obstacles mainstream society has made for them. The increased difficulty to participate in normative society means disabled people have less opportunity, and are often labeled with harmful stereotypes. It also means that mainstream society is automatically marked as able-bodied, meaning we assume everyone thinks, moves and looks in a similar way.

In my introduction, I sound off a group of labels that describe the community I grew up in. And although they did embody those traits-- I leave out one big one: able-bodied. I chose to leave this identity out in my first description for two reasons: the first is I didn’t want to hint at the rest of my spiel, but the second is to point out how easy it is to assume everyone is able bodied.

The assumption that we all move through the world in the same way creates a hierarchy where those who experience the world differently, are made out to be less than. The narrative that people with disabilities need to be “fixed” to be more like able-bodied normative society can be seen in movies, facebook clips, even the 2018 Olympics where  two ice dancers performed as if one was blind. By the end of the performance, the blind dancer had been “cured” and had changed from a fragile shaky skater, to a confident and individualized figure.

Because it can be harder to point out, I’ve gathered a list of scenarios and situations that are laced with ableism. Once we begin to start acknowledging subtle discrimination, it’s easier to recognize how we internalize and maintain ablest tendencies.


  • Using the word “retard” or “retarded” in derogatory ways. If you are still using these terms, you need to take a serious look at how you are instigating ableism.
  • Using other ableist language to describe something that is out of the ordinary, including: idiotic, crazy, psycho, etc.
  • Framing a disabled person as “heroic” and “overcoming their disability” when they achieve ordinary everyday tasks.
    • This one may seem harmless, but it just perpetuates the idea that disabled people can’t live a life similar to non disabled people, and when they do, it’s heartwarming and cute.
  • Referencing a disabled person in third person when they are right in front of you.
    • “What would she like to eat?” “What’s his name?” “Where can they sit?”
  • The automatic assumption that someone can’t work or complete a task because of their perceived ability
  • Insisting on helping, without consulting disabled person first.
    • Also related: saying “sorry” after learning of a disability
  • The narrative that people who use mobility aids are “milking it”
  • The notion that those with a disability are a “vacuum of taxpayers money”
  • The idea that those with any disability can be “cured” or “fixed”
  • The infantilization of those with cognitive and developmental disabilities
  • The tokenization of disabled people
    • I.e. hiring a certain amount of autistic workers, and then touting your own horn that you are including them at all
  • A lack or complete omission of accessibility ramps, elevators, and overall ableist architecture.
  • Failing to acknowledge that disability is an identity

This list is by no means complete, but it starts to hint at the subtle ableist tendencies we encounter on a day to day basis.


As humans, we can’t help but put people into boxes. In one glance we categorize people, making judgements based off of what we see and what society has told us to attach to those visual cues. But one of the greatest skills we have as humans, is the ability to alter our behavior. Taking a second to be mindful of your reaction to difference is how we can begin to acknowledge the ways ableism has permeated our lives and work towards removing it.

Sources: 1, 2 



Crippen Cartoon 1

Crippen Cartoon 2 

Crippen Cartoon 3 

Crippen Cartoon 4