Disability 101


“A system that places value on people’s bodies and minds based on societally constructed ideas of normality, intelligence, excellence, desirability, and productivity. These constructed ideas are deeply rooted in anti-Blackness, eugenics, misogyny, colonialism, imperialism and capitalism. This form of systemic oppression leads to people and society determining who is valuable and worthy based on a person’s language, appearance, religion and/or their ability to satisfactorily [re]produce, excel and “behave.” You do not have to be disabled to experience ableism.” (Source, Last updated by Talia Lewis January 2021) 

At its core, ableism is valuing certain bodies and minds over others. “Ableism manifests in many ways. It exists on different levels of society, including the following:

  • Institutional level: This form of ableism affects institutions. An example is medical ableism, which is rooted in the idea that disability of any kind is a problem that needs fixing. When this is part of medical teaching and health policy, it affects the entire healthcare system and the well-being of patients.
  • Interpersonal level: This is ableism that takes place in social interactions and relationships. For example, a parent of a child with a disability might try to “cure” the disability rather than accept it.
  • Internal level: Internalized ableism is when a person consciously or unconsciously believes in the harmful messages they hear about disability and applies them to themselves. For example, a person may feel that disability accommodations are a privilege and not a right” (Source).

Internalized ableism is something that a lot of disabled people struggle with. It is when someone takes the ableist messages that people are saying about disabeld people and believes them about themselves. Identifying internalized ableism can be difficult at first, but paying attention to what might be internalized ableism is the first step in trying to correct those thoughts. If you notice yourself thinking something ableist about yourself, try to notice and correct the thought to something that values your experience and existence as a disabledperson. Sometimes internalized ableism comes up more prominently in different points in life, and is something that we as disabled people are continually working on throughout our journeys. 

Check out this link for more on internalized ableism: https://disorient.co/internalized-ableism/ 

And also this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6f9VFMIhAxs 

Institutional forms of ableism

  • Segregating students with disabilities into separate schools
  • The use of restraint as a means of controlling students with disabilities
  • Segregating adults and children with disabilities in institutions
  • Failing to incorporate accessibility into building design plans
  • Buildings without braille on signs, elevator buttons, etc.
  • Building inaccessible websites
  • The assumption that people with disabilities want or need to be ‘fixed’
  • Refusing to provide reasonable accommodations, including captioning or sign language interpreters
  • Requiring physical symptoms to take a break or get exceptions
  • Medical
    discrimination like dismissal and under-diagnosis
  • Casting a non-disabled actor to play a disabled character in a play, movie, TV show, or commercial
  • Making a movie that doesn’t have audio description or closed captioning
  • Assuming everyone can participate in person all the time
  • Choosing an inaccessible venue for a meeting or event, therefore excluding some participants
  • Inaccessible classrooms and classroom material
  • The eugenics movement of the early 1900s
  • The mass murder of disabled people in Nazi Germany

Note: Economics is often a critical factor in institutional ableism

Other forms of ableism

  • Treating disability as a spectacle
  • Using disability as a punchline, or mocking people with disabilities
  • Having to defend your disability from comments like “Why don’t you just try” or “it’s all in your head”
  • Assuming people have to have a visible disability to actually be disabled
  • Projects that try to center disability but in a charity model way 
  • Judgment for advocating for disability accommodations like “just put your head down and do your work”
  • Using terminology like high or low functioning 
  • “I would have never guessed you had a disability, you seem so smart
  • “Wow! You don’t seem like you have that disability!”
  • Mistreating people until you know an explicit diagnosis
  • For non apparent disabilities assuming you are not performing because you are “not applying yourself” or are lazy
  • For non apparent disabilities assuming you can perform at a specific standard all the time. 
  • “You are so pretty, for a disabled person”
  • Viewing typical things a disabled person is doing as inspirational, like going to school or having a job
  • “I would have an abortion if I knew my baby had your disability.”
  • Assuming disabled people have nothing to offer
  • Questioning whether a person’s disability is real
  • “If I had your disability, I would kill myself.”
  • “I am SO sorry for what’s happening to you.”
  • Assuming disabled people do not have opinions or preferences
  • Assuming disabled people are a threat.
  • “I don’t even think of you as disabled.” 
  • When disability is “Taboo”
  • “You are gonna be okay” when most conditions are life-long so the notion of being okay eventually is frustrating
  • Assuming its a student’s choice to not participate when they are having a flare
  • Framing disability as either tragic or inspirational in news stories, movies, and other popular forms of media
  • Using someone else’s mobility device as a hand or foot rest
  • Using the accessible bathroom stall when you are able to use the non-accessible stall without pain or risk of injury
  • Wearing scented products in a scent-free environment
  • Talking to a person with a disability like they are a child (infantilization), talking about them instead of directly to them, or speaking for them
  • Asking invasive questions about the medical history or personal life of someone with a disability

ableist microaggressions

  • “That’s so lame.”
  • “You are so retarded.”
  • “That guy is crazy.”
  • “You’re acting so bi-polar today.”
  • “Are you off your meds?”
  • “It’s like the blind leading the blind.”
  • “My ideas fell on deaf ears.”
  • “She’s such a psycho.”
  • “I’m super OCD about how I clean my apartment.”

Note: examples of ableism brainstormed by the UC Berkeley Disability Lab

Check out these videos on ableism (made for nondisabled people):