You’ve heard of “racism” and “sexism,” but if you haven’t heard of another -ism—ableism—then chances are this form of discrimination doesn’t affect your daily life. By definition, ableism is described as “discrimination in favor of able-bodied people,” which means people who are disabled are more likely to experience ableism.
“Ableism is something I think most people have until they decide to or are forced to learn about disability,” Bri Scalesse, fashion model, disability advocate, and writer, tells Parade. “Ableism is not just physical barriers and stereotypes, it is also not including disabled people in your campaigns, in your conversations, in your planning.”
When we talk about inclusivity—the practice or policy of providing equal access to opportunities and resources for people who might otherwise be excluded or marginalized—and moving toward a more inclusive society, these conversations don’t only refer to race, sex, and gender, but should also inherently include people who are disabled.
After all, people with disabilities make up 15 percent of the population, making this group the world’s largest minority.
Here’s everything to know about ableism—what it is, what it means to be ableist, how it relates to accessibility, inclusivity, and more.
What is ableism?
Ableism is a type of discrimination that favors able-bodied people or “non-disabled people.” Legally speaking, “able-bodied” or “non-disabled” refers to a person’s physical or mental capacity to perform a job and therefore, earn a living. People who can hear, see, walk, have use of their limbs, don’t have a mental health condition or intellectual impairment, etc. are considered able-bodied.
“Ableism is the discrimination of disabled people in which disabled people are seen as lesser than non-disabled people,” Scalesse explains. “I experience ableism almost every day from individuals and every day from society itself.”
As Scalesse mentioned above, ableism doesn’t just refer to stereotypes or physical things that bar access for disabled people. This –ism also refers to a lack of representation in media, mainstream discourse, and more, which speaks to the larger problem of visibility. For Scalesse, the modeling industry was particularly ableist and with the drive to become a model herself, she decided to take it on.
“Growing up, I longed to see disabled models on the shows I watched and magazines I read,” Scalesse, says. “I saw no representation of my body. I saw no standard of beauty saying it was okay, beautiful, meaningful to be a disabled person and have a disabled body. When I saw Jillian Mercado in an fashion advertisement for the first time I felt so seen. I felt so valid.”
She adds, “Modeling to me as a disabled woman is about taking the power of my body and my image back from the stereotypes and ableism media has perpetuated.”
Related: 25 Anti-Racist Instagram Account to Follow
What is an example of ableism?
There are infinite examples of ableism and there are many types, including “bigger,” or more overt displays of ableism—ie. a business’s lack of wheelchair-accessible ramps or bathrooms, a lack of brail options, a lack of overall accessibility options—and then microagressions.
According to Forbes, personal ableism describes, “Feeling instinctively uncomfortable around disabled people, or anyone who seems ‘strange’ in ways that might be connected to a disability of some kind. This manifests in hundreds of ways, and can include: Being nervous, clumsy, and awkward around people in wheelchairs, being viscerally disgusted by people whose bodies appear to be very different or ‘deformed,’ and avoiding talking to disabled people in order to avoid some kind of feared embarrassment.”
Personal ableism may also include perpetuating or believing stereotypical views about disabled people or even resenting the “privileges” disabled people may have as a group—ie, “better” parking spaces, bigger bathrooms, etc.
Another example of ableism may simply be the words we use. As society continues to change, the language is also ever-evolving.
Scalesse says, “I’ve recently come to prefer the term ‘non-disabled.’ As Judy Heumann said in a Trevor Noah interview, if everyone lives long enough, they will eventually become disabled. We are a minority group that anyone can join at any time. An ‘able body’ is just a body that hasn’t become disabled yet.”
Related: 50 Racial Justice Quotes
What does it mean to be ableist?
To be or act ableist means to perpetuate discrimination or prejudice against individuals with disabilities and this can take form in many different ways—from systemic or institutionalized ableism, personal ableism, internalized ableism, and ableist microagressions.
According to My Diversability, a resource on accessibility and ableism, exclusions themselves are ableist. If your dialogue, campaigns, planning, and belief systems do not include people with disabilities, then that is ableist.
System or institutional ableism can mean physical barriers, policies, laws, regulations, and practices that don’t protect or include people with disabilities. Such policies and barriers are non-inclusive and therefore ableist.
Assuming that a person is incapable, asking personal questions about someone’s injury or condition, or avoiding the topic altogether are all additional examples of ableist behaviors.
In short, being ableist means not taking disabled people into consideration, not including them as a group.
What words are ableist?
Some language is considered ableist. The blog Dear Everybody put together a helpful PDF of ableist words and also includes alternative terminology. Ableist words include: “lame,” “dumb, “retarded,” “blind,” “deaf,” “idiot,” “imbecile,” “nuts,” “crazy,” “psycho,” and more.
Why are these words hurtful and considered ableist? They reinforce a narrative that a disabled experience is a lesser experience. As Dear Everybody puts it, “These terms can be associated with a person’s identity or their challenges, and because of that, can be interpreted as insulting or hurtful.”
Apart from specific words that are ableist, language—and how it’s presented—also has the potential to be ableist. In general, using people-first language is usually less offensive. For example: “A child with disabilities” is generally preferred to “a disabled child,” “he has quadriplegia” versus “he’s quadriplegic,” or “she has autism” versus “she is autistic.”
For people with disabilities, the language is also very personal and it’s up to the person’s individual preference.
“I strongly identify as a disabled woman/disabled. But I know people who prefer ‘a person with a disability,’” Scalesse says. “I also know people who hate the word ‘disabled.’ It’s such a vast spectrum. I think it’s always important to ask someone what they prefer.”
Related: What Is Implicit Bias?
What is accessibility?
The term “accessibility” refers to a few different things. First, it means “quality of being easily reached, entered, or used by people who have a disability” and can refer to anything that makes places, situations, or experiences more accessible—wheelchair ramps, elevators, brail menus, sign language services, etc.
When it comes to the internet, accessibility is important there, too. According to Mozilla, “Accessibility is the practice of making your websites usable by as many people as possible. We traditionally think of this as being about people with disabilities, but the practice of making sites accessible also benefits other groups such as those using mobile devices, or those with slow network connections.”
For disabled people, accessibility is crucial as it denotes more inclusive access so that everyone—of all kinds of abilities and experiences—can be involved and partake.
“Accessibility is equality. Equality means inclusion of everyone. Accessibility benefits everyone,” Scalesse says.
What are some resources on ableism?
In addition to the aforementioned resources above—My Diversability, Dear Everybody, etc.—resource recommendations come courtesy of Scalesse:
“Watch Crip Camp and Special on Netflix. Follow Alice Wong, Jillian Mercado, Judy Heumann, Julian Gavino, Imani Barbarin. Listen to ‘From the Throne‘ and ‘Sit the F*ck Down‘ podcasts,” Scalesse says.
Much of ableism is institutionalized, so unfortunately, there’s a little bit of ableism in everyone that is able-bodied. The most important thing you can do to be actively anti-ableist is to educate yourself.
“Learn about the discrimination disabled people face every day,” Scalesse says. “Learn about the discrimination disabled people have faced since the beginning of time. Disabled people do not have equal marriage rights in America. Dozens of wheelchairs are broken every day by airlines. Disabled people face discrimination applying for jobs, applying for adoption, on dating apps. Sometimes it feels never-ending. Educating yourself as a non-disabled person is a start but active advocacy is vital to changing the discrimination we face.”
Next up, the best wheelchair-accessible vacations.