Understanding Disability: Ableism

Ableism Explained

A common definition of ableism is that it is discrimination and social prejudice against people with disabilities. That’s undoubtedly true, but ableism can also be described as discrimination in favor of non-disabled people.

The distinction lies in how ableism — sometimes subtly, sometimes blatantly — puts forward the myth of the superiority of non-disabled people and the inferiority of disabled people.

When access is denied to a person with a disability, when a person is disbelieved about their disability, when disability is used as a slur — that is ableism.

If you’re reading this and you identify as disabled, you are probably all too familiar with ableist language and behavior.

Possibly the worst aspect of ableism is that it’s frequently practiced by people who don’t even realize they’re being ableist and would be horrified to be accused of it.

That’s how normalized ableist language and behavior have become. Legislation is one thing — it’s quite another to change the way people speak and behave.

Ableist Language

Two common forms of ableist language are using words or phrases describing impairments and disabilities as an insult and using words or phrases that undermine the status of people with disabilities.


  • “That joke was so lame!” uses physical impairment to imply weakness.
  • “What are you, blind?” implies that people who are blind are inherently oblivious.
  • “That’s just crazy talk” uses psychiatric impairment to imply a lack of logic or coherence.


  • “Wheelchair-bound” implies a person is restricted and not free. In reality, wheelchairs are liberating.
  • “The blind” bundles all blind people into one group as if they were all the same.
  • “Suffers from cerebral palsy” portrays a person as a victim, in pain, and in need of saving.

Does it Matter?

All the preceding terms use disability to emphasize a point, and none of them are likely intended to be offensive.

But what they all do is set people with disability apart from the rest of society. They imply that the experience of disability is not normal.

This is the great ableist fallacy: that living with a disability resulting from some sort of impairment isn’t normal. The reality is that everybody lives with some sort of physical, sensory, cognitive, or psychiatric impairment. That is normality. How much disability we all experience depends on how well society meets our needs.

Some ableist language is deliberate. Words like “moron”, “lunatic”, “retard” and “cripple” are not used accidentally. They are intended to demean and offend, and they do. Stop using those words.

Euphemisms such as “differently abled” and “special”, while better intentioned, also serve only to set people with disability apart.

Context Makes a Difference

Not every instance of a potentially offensive word is ableist. The verb “retard” means to slow, and “retarded” was used historically to refer to people whose cognitive development didn’t reach certain benchmarks. It is not ableist to say firefighters use chemicals to retard a fire. But if a person is described as a “retard”, it should be clear this is ableist and unacceptable.

Some disability activists aim to blunt the offensive nature of ableist language by reclaiming those words for their own use. That is a personal choice. It’s one thing for a person in a wheelchair to call themselves a “crip”. That doesn’t make it right for anyone else to call them that — unless they are invited to.

All this can leave some people confused about what to say around people with disabilities. In most cases, a blind person is unlikely to be offended by “Do you see what I mean?”, or a deaf person by “Did you hear about this?” All the same, if someone is pulled up on using ableist language, they should acknowledge the point and accept the criticism. Next time, they might say “Do you understand?” or “Did you know about this?” instead.

For an extensive analysis of ableist language and a regularly updated glossary of ableist words and phrases with acceptable alternatives, see Lydia X.Z. Brown’s blog, Autistic Hoya.

Ableist Behavior

Expressing pity and describing them as inspirational both contribute to the infantilization of people with disabilities.

This includes treating an adult with a disability as if they were a child, which often comes up in the way people behave around people with disabilities.

Some people feel an urge to physically aid or comfort a person with disability, whether or not the person has expressed any such need.

What this behavior really demonstrates, though, is both a lack of awareness of a person’s level of independence and a lack of respect for their personal space, simply because they have a disability.

That is ableist behavior.

Ableist behavior is based on an underlying assumption that a person with a disability must need assistance and will welcome any kind of physical intervention.

Examples include:

  • Taking the arm of blind person crossing the street without their permission.
  • Speaking with exaggerated loudness to a profoundly deaf person.
  • Taking control of a person’s wheelchair without asking them first.
  • Speaking to a person with a physical disability as if they have an intellectual disability.
  • Patting a person on the head, or any other part of their body.

People with disabilities routinely have to put up with this ableist, patronizing, and infantilizing behavior, without ever being asked for, or giving, their consent.

Offering Help

It’s natural to offer assistance to someone you think needs it. There is a human reaction to disability that assumes a disabled person must need help. That’s also influenced by how we’ve treated people with disabilities through the ages. Often, we literally locked disabled people away. No wonder many people don’t know how they should talk to disabled people.

The reality is that “disabled” does not equal “helpless”, or even “in need of help”. People with disabilities do often need and use assistance and support, but they do not need saving.

If you think a person with a disability needs your help, ask them. That’ll establish whether your help is needed, and you can then establish the best way to help.

Don’t make assumptions, don’t use ableist language, don’t behave arrogantly, and don’t expect to get it right every time.

There may be times when you get it wrong. Maybe the person doesn’t need your help at all. Maybe you unknowingly used an ableist expression. Accept it, apologize or excuse yourself, and move on.

Just as you would with a person who isn’t disabled.

More information:

Originally published: https://www.tpgi.com/understanding-disability-ableism/

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