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When tackling the “isms" in the EDI spectre, there are two that are typically forgotten. Talking about ableism and disablism: Part 1.

When tackling the “isms" in the EDI spectre, there are two that are typically forgotten. Talking about ableism and disablism: Part 1.

There are many "isms" in the diversity spectre that we discuss to explain or describe some of the injustice and difficulties individuals or groups face in their daily lives. To start with an interesting fact, any word that is suffixed with 'ism' is used to discuss a concept with a specific cultural, political, or social ideology. As organisations and companies have flagged improvements that need to be made in workplaces, numerous isms have been discussed with some proactive progression; examples are racism and sexism. A lot more needs to be done for better diversity and inclusion for all candidates across multiple industries. However, this article will dive into discussing ableism and disablism, what each word means, a little history lesson in between and a dissection of minor and significant examples of ableism that individuals use or encounter in their everyday lives.

What is ableism?

There are many different definitions of ableism. While they all have the same root meaning, additional explanations help explain certain social and educational circumstances. Ableism is the discrimination or [social] prejudice of individuals with disabilities. However, ableism goes further than any generic form of discrimination and bias as ableism is rooted in the belief that individuals with disabilities require fixing or are 'lesser than. SCOPE, an organisation dedicated to advocating for individuals with disabilities, has stated that in addition to making individuals feel more inferior, ableism also drives misconceptions, generalisations, and harmful stereotypes. Often ableism is shown or demonstrated through different people's attitudes, language, or actions. Many individuals do not consciously demonstrate ableist attitudes or behaviours, and whilst some might consider this to be a positive thing- those individuals are not deliberately malicious towards others. This poses a more significant issue than one might think. Though people are not making a conscious effort to marginalise individuals with disabilities, ableist attitudes and behaviours have become so common that they are ingrained into the social fabric of our society.

Whether an individual has a physical, neurological, psychosocial, or social disability, they are not equal. Many people do not consider the obstacles individuals with disabilities will encounter in their daily lives and sometimes the obstacles they have forced upon them. There is also another layer added to ableism and discriminating others according to their ability needs, and that is disablism. Disablism is the attitude of inconsideration directed towards those with disabilities and impairments. SCOPE has found that these attitudes are universal, both towards those who have visible disabilities, i.e., using a wheelchair and more so when they have an invisible disability, i.e., ADHD. An invisible disability is defined as having accessibility or ability need that is not visually or immediately apparent to others. Society places much more importance on the economic advancement of those who do not have accessibility needs, whether hiring candidates or making accessible transport and buildings. Individuals with a disability are often side-tracked and treated like second-class citizens, wherein their requirements to make their lives more comfortable and accessible are often disregarded.

Some history on disablism  

Whilst researching for this article, I happened upon a research piece that discussed the importance of understanding history and how it shaped a somewhat universal culture of ableism in society. The following research has been drawn from three different sources:, Harvard Business Review and Scope. These three sources have significantly shaped how this article will discuss ableism and disablism, and they will be cited when used. As the industrialised era boomed, labour, profit, and economy became stand out pieces of culture integral to moving society forward. This industrialised era 'commodified the human body' []. If an individual could not work or contribute to the economic system, they were considered a burden. Unfortunately, this ableist culture has only increased and become a common misconception that individuals with an [dis]ability are automatically unable to work. As opposed to assessing how an environment or workplace can be made more inclusive so that ability and accessibility needs can be met, an exclusionary culture was continuously fostered, placing obstacles and barriers instead. The ableist culture that has been perpetuated since the industrial era has segregated individuals with visible or physical ability needs, institutionalised and at times unjustly treated and medicated those with psychological and neurological ability needs and dismissed those with social and educational ability needs. Of course, this is not exhaustive, and the treatments are interchangeable as well. Everyone's experience is different and unique. Our communities have much work to do to make daily living, education, and employment more accessible to those with any ability and accessibility need. The discrimination that individuals with [dis]abilities face is systematic. They face many difficulties from not having access to inclusive education or education aid, not having adequate or suitable modes or routes for public and private transport, and not having equal opportunities compared to their peers for employment and hiring. Though these are institutional exclusions that individuals with disabilities may face throughout their lives, there are everyday instances that are considered 'minor' or everyday instances- such as ableist comments and behaviours, using facilities designated for individuals with [dis]abilities, and even being fetishised/ objectified by individuals who have a disability.


'Minor' or everyday ableism

Before I begin this section, the word minor has been addressed in the context of instances that are made out to be minor, or it reflects a short interaction, behaviour, or action. Minor is not used to discuss cases of ableism which are a 'small problem'. Ableism comes to dominate over the lives of individuals with disabilities, as ableist attitudes have become a norm, thus go unchecked and unnoticed. Below are some of the phrases that are common but ableist:

  • "That's so lame."
  • "You are so retarded."
  • "That guy is crazy."
  • "You're acting so bipolar 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."
  • "Can I pray for you?"
  • "I don't even think of you as disabled."
  • [Credit for list:]

In many cases, these phrases make a mockery, belittle, and make [dis]ability seem like a harmful problem that needs to be fixed. These phrases are often used as snide commentary or in passing that isn't necessarily used to insult people explicitly. However, many of these phrases and words have explicit or implicit harmful meanings that affect an individual's self-esteem. As a society, we have been conditioned to think that using these phrases are socially acceptable. We don't realise that they can have a harmful tone on the receiving end of them. Also, many people have invisible disabilities, which means you could unknowingly affect many people around you, as they are not overtly apparent.

Minor and everyday ableism can also include actions, attitudes, and behaviours some may not think as offensive or a 'big deal'. Still, much like the phrases, they are incredibly harmful, ignorant, and insulting towards individuals with disabilities:

  • Choosing an inaccessible venue for a meeting or event
  • Using someone else's mobility device as a hand or footrest
  • Framing disability as either tragic or inspirational in news stories and movies
  • Casting a non-disabled actor to play a disabled character in a play, film, TV show, or commercial
  • Making a movie that doesn't have an audio description or closed captioning
  • Using the accessible bathroom stall when you can 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, 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
  • Assuming people must have a visible disability to be disabled
  • Questioning if someone is 'actually' disabled, or 'how much they are disabled
  • Asking, "How did you become disabled?"
  • [Credit for list:]


I want to thank SCOPE, and Acessliving. Org for their informative information, I do not own this information but instead have credited the organisations, and you can find the cited website below each section that is not my work. There are many examples that I have learnt about that has come to my attention. The benefit of sharing their knowledge and experience can help others find compassion and understand the different language, behaviours and mannerisms that can be ableist.


This has been part 1. Keep an eye out for part 2 of understanding ableism.