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You may have recently come across the term “ableism” in a post on the internet. You vaguely recognized the term, but didn\’t know what it meant.

Or maybe a classmate, friend, or co-worker called out a comment you made, saying “That’s ableist.” But you didn’t know exactly why what you said was problematic.

Ableism. is a description of prejudice, bias, and discrimination against people with disabilities.

Ableism. has a deep roots in the structure of society. It is not just a recent issue or a topic that is being discussed. In many places, society considers all manner of physical and mental health concerns signs of being inferior and puts those with so-called “flaws” to a lower social status.

But the concept of ableism has drawn increasing attention in recent years. More and more people continue to point out ableist language, beliefs, and attitudes as things to challenge and avoid.

Some of the behaviors, words, and beliefs that can be included in ableism are not harmful or unkind. It can sometimes be difficult to recognize ableism.

It is always worth trying. If you increase your awareness of ableism, you can explore ways to make changes.

Not sure where to start? Just keep reading. Our guide offers an overview of ableism, along with examples, impact and ways to address it.

“If you don’t live with a disability, you may not know how society pushes people with disabilities to the fringes.”

It might be helpful to unpack whatability means. This term might bring to mind people with physical conditions.

For example:

  • A person uses a wheelchair.
  • A person is blind.
  • A person has only one arm.

But according to the Americans with Disabilities Act, a disability can include any physical or mental health condition or symptom that significantly affects at least one major activity of daily life.

Disabilities can affect the ability to do things.

  • communicate
  • Stand, walk, or move.
  • Leave home.
  • See, hear, breathe, eat and drink.
  • Learn and remember.
  • Work responsibilities should be handled.
  • interact with others
  • Handle other basic needs, such as showering, using the bathroom, or using the bathroom.

Mocking or dismissing someone with a disability might be a pretty obvious form of ableism, but ableism doesn’t always happen intentionally. Maybe you just never realized chronic illness or mental health conditions counted as disabilities.

Ableism. begins with the failure to acknowledge the different types of disabilities people can experience. You may not have any negative intentions, but unintentional ableism can still have a big impact.

There is a difference between intent and impact.

The list below is not very extensive, but it does give a brief description of some of the ways ableism occurs.

Ableism. can include things.

  • People with disabilities have less value.
  • They can be healed or overcome a disability.
  • suggesting they’re “inspirational” for handling everyday activities and routine tasks
  • They are assuming they have a limited life.
  • “They can’t do things for themselves.”
  • Words like normal and healthy are used to describe non-disabled people.
  • “Asking intrusive questions about someone’s disability.”
  • Any equipment or devices they use without permission.
  • “ignoring requests for accommodations or not acknowledging someone’s disability.”
  • refusing to use terms like “deaf person,” “neurodivergent,” or “wheelchair user”
  • After someone asks you to stop, you should use ableist language.

Ableism. can be cruel. Some people treat people with disabilities as if their needs are unimportant.

“You will notice that ableism can take different forms. You might feel bad for someone with a disability because you think they can’t enjoy life.”

Ableism. can also stem from good intentions. Maybe a classmate who uses a cane drops their backpack. You rush to pick it up and gather their spilled belongings without waiting to ask if they’d like any assistance.

They might say, “Oh, I have it, thanks.” You insist they need your help.

This chart shows a few more examples.

Example Why it counts as ableism What to say instead
Your friend’s teenage son has cystic fibrosis and uses a breathing tube. One day you say to your friend, while he’s in the room, “That’s so incredible he goes to school. You must be so proud of him.” Even though you’re talking about your friend’s son, you completely ignore him. Plus, praising someone with a disability for doing something nondisabled people do daily can also ableist. It’s just fine to praise an achievement — something you’d compliment anyone for. Maybe you’d say, “Your mom told me you had a painting in the district art contest. That’s pretty impressive!
At work one day, you receive a pamphlet on exercise recommendations. The pamphlet states, “Even simple exercises like walking and yoga can offer health benefits. The best part? Anyone can do these exercises — no equipment needed.” Not everyone can walk or do yoga, for one. But this language also excludes people of different ability levels. Even some people able to do these activities may not find them “simple.” The pamphlet might note, “Any type of physical activity can offer health benefits.” It could then list a variety of exercises, including examples for people using their arms only, their legs only, or their whole body.
You ask a co-worker who’s recently missed a lot of work how they’re doing. They thank you for asking and explain they live with chronic pain. Later, you say to your partner, “They look fine to me. I should say I have chronic pain and get some time off, too.” People living with chronic pain face plenty of stigma and doubt, even from medical professionals. Denying or questioning a disability is always ableist. Remember, not all conditions have visible symptoms. You might offer support to your co-worker by saying, “Thanks for sharing that with me. If I can do anything to offer support, just let me know.”
You’re making plans with a group of friends to meet at the game after school. Everyone seems to be ignoring your friend who uses a wheelchair, so you ask if they plan to go. Another friend laughs. “Would they even enjoy a football game?” Why couldn’t someone who uses a wheelchair enjoy watching a game? What’s more, ignoring or discussing people in front of them suggests they aren’t worth noticing or have no opinions worth sharing. Instead of replying to the friend who made the remark, you might turn back to the friend being ignored and offer a direct invitation to join you at the game.

There are a lot of different factors that play a part in ableism.

  • Fear of disability. Meeting someone with a noticeable disability might prompt feelings of fear, discomfort, and disgust. You might think things like, “What if that happened to me?” or “I’d hate to live like that.”
  • Uncertainty around how to behave. Should you acknowledge someone’s disability? Offer help? Say nothing about it? When you don’t know how to treat someone with a disability, you might respond by being extra nice or overly helpful — or completely ignoring them for fear of making a mistake.
  • Lack of disability awareness. Knowing very little about disabilities in general can lead to intrusive questions and assumptions about what people do and don’t need. The fact that some people need certain accommodations may not even come to mind.
  • Learned social behavior. Ableism. can stem from attitudes you learn from your parents, peers, and even the media. Plenty of shows treat people with disabilities as plot points or inspirational stories rather than actual human beings — when they include them at all.
  • Moral or religious beliefs. You might unconsciously judge someone’s disability if you link it to a choice or mistake they made. Some religious faiths also consider disabilities a type of divine punishment.
  • Eugenics. The eugenics movement fueled the idea that only people with “ideal” traits should have children, or even continue to live. These beliefs, which led to the sterilization, imprisonment, and even murder of people with disabilities, still factor into disability prejudice.

Sometimes, ableism happens on a person-to- person level.

  • Even though your office is scent-free, you wear your favorite cologne to work because you have a date afterwards.
  • “You don’t like when your roommate turns on closed caption during a movie, even though you know they are partially deafness.”
  • Your sister lives with bipolar disorder, and you tell a friend “they should lock her up because she’s completely nutso.”

These and other microaggressions can cause a lot of damage. Disability prejudice is often promoted by institutional ableism, the policies and practices present in many sectors of life.

Some institutional ableism examples include:

  • Students with disabilities are separated from their peers.
  • Access to healthcare is not equal.
  • There are places that are not accessible, such as parking lots, public transportation, school campuses, and websites.
  • Mental health conditions are not included in sick leave policies.
  • “There are signs and maps that show public buildings that don’t have accessible bathroom.”

Ableism. denies the opportunities and respect that people with disabilities deserve. Sometimes it can serve to limit their lives more than the disability.

The effects of ableism might be more obvious.

  • Pain and frustration are caused by rudeness or patronizing attitudes.
  • There are not many job opportunities or lower average income.
  • difficulty participating in everyday activities due to a lack of accommodations

People who face ableist attitudes often will eventually internalize or believe in these messages.

Someone who is treated as helpless may eventually give up trying to make their own choices.

At the end of the day, discrimination, microaggressions, and continually closed doors send the message, “You’re not welcome. You don’t belong.”

This lack of recognition and acceptance can eventually contribute to this.

A key step to avoiding ableism in your own behavior? People with disabilities are just as deserving of the same respect as people without disabilities.

It is a good first step to treat people with disabilities the same way you would treat anyone else. This might seem basic. The idea that people with disabilities are not human is one of the main factors driving ableism.

Another important step? You should never assume anyone needs something. Do what you can to support them, instead of asking them directly.

Assumptions are not the only thing to avoid. Promoting true acceptance and inclusivity bymplifying people living with disabilities can help.

You may not be able to challenge institutional ableism directly on every level, true. But pointing out a lack of accessibility where you notice it can make a difference when it comes to creating more inclusive and welcoming environments.

Some people need accommodations to participate in their daily activities. There is something to consider.

If you wear glasses or contact lens, you have a disability that society deems acceptable. It is possible for you to participate in daily life if you have glasses or contacts.

Everyone deserves the same opportunities, no matter what their disability is.

Questions to ask yourself

Not sure whether a question or remark might be ableist? It can help to ask yourself the following questions:

  • Would I make a comment to someone without a disability or ask the question?
  • “Does this question or comment focus on the person’s disability, rather than the person themselves?”
  • “Is it my job to assume the person’s needs or to decide something for them without their consent?”
  • Do I need to know this?
  • Is it expected that they educate me about their disabilities?

Words can have a lasting impact, too

One more way to check ableism?

Understand the terms and language that promote ableism and stigma and then remove them from your vocabulary.

A few examples.

  • Crazy, crazy, nuts, psycho.
  • addicted to it
  • hysterical
  • Spaz, idiot, moron.
  • dumb, dumb, dumb

Many people use these words without knowing where they come from, but they have a problematic history.

You could say, “Well, everyone says them, or I don\’t mean them in a bad way.” That intent doesn\’t always translate to impact

It is possible to stop saying these words. You can probably find a word that describes your feelings better with a little thought and creativity.

Ableism. is woven into the fabric of society, but it is possible to change the pattern and make a more inclusive future. This change requires effort, not to mention some exploration of your own biases.

For many people living with a disability, the disability itself may have less of an effect on their quality of lifethan ableism and other discrimination they experience.

“Making assumptions about people with disabilities won’t counter ableism. It is possible to replace assumptions with acceptance, and respect, by challenging yourself to explore them.”

How to address ableism is more information.

Crystal Raypole is a writer for Healthline. Her interests include Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. She is committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues. She lives in Washington with her son and cat.