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Anti-Bias Anti-Racism




Ableism – The practices and dominant attitudes in society that devalue and limit the potential of persons with disabilities. A set of practices and beliefs that assign inferior value (worth) to people who have developmental, emotional, physical or psychiatric disabilities.

Disablism - A set of assumptions (conscious or unconscious) and practices that promote the differential or unequal treatment of people because of actual or presumed disabilities.
People who do not have a disability or who are not close to someone who does, might not understand how the world is wired for non-disabled people. It may be invisible to those who do not have disabilities. It is sometimes not intentional, but in certain circumstances, it is very intentional.
An ableist society is said to be one that treats non-disabled individuals as the standard of ‘normal living’, which results in public and private places and services, education, and social work that are built to serve 'standard' people, thereby inherently excluding those with various disabilities.

Ableist Language - Discriminatory language is language that is typically associated with a marginalized group but is borrowed by another group and used in a discriminatory manner. Ableist language is an example of this as it uses words that have historically described people with disabilities. The words have become embedded in our language and we don't even realize the words we are saying have an impact. University of the Fraser Valley

What does Ableism look like?

To a person with a disability there is a finite number of resources. There is usually only one accessible stall in the washroom, there are a handful of accessible or handicap parking spots at a store, and there is only one or two elevators in a building.

One of the most common forms of Ableism is using an accessible resource without thinking about it, or believing that no people with disabilities are around so it is free to use. 

Accessible Washroom/Stall. Of course, if all the stalls in the washroom are occupied, the accessible stall is there use.  But if you don't really need the accessible stall and you choose to use it instead of other stalls that are available, you are taking a resource away from a person with a disability. And for many people with a disability, a regular washroom stall is not an option to use.

Accessible parking spots. When using an accessible parking spot even for just a minute, you are taking a spot away from someone who needs it. They may not be able to go into the store without having a spot right up front. Even those who may look 'typical', if they have been given a handicap permit, have a valid reason to use those spaces.  

Elevator hogging. There are many reasons for using an elevator, however before entering the elevator, especially a busy one, check that a person with a disability is not being passed over. There are cases when a large crowd is waiting for an elevator and a person with a disability is made to wait for the next elevator.

Assumption of competence based on a person’s appearance of diagnosis. A person’s opinion or wants may be dismissed because of their disability. A person’s intelligence or comprehension may be ignored because of their appearance or their ability to communicate.

Inaccessible events or places.  Many events don’t provide accommodation or accessibility for people with disabilities. For wheelchair accessible seats in theatres or stadiums, there is often only one regular seat beside it when a person using a wheelchair may want to sit with friends or family. Some venues want proof that a person using a wheelchair accessible spot actually needs it. Some places like restaurants have inaccessible front entries and can only accommodate mobility users by taking them through the kitchen.  

Not for us without us. People with disabilities are often left out of conversations at every level on policies that affect them. Ask or involve the people affected before policies, procedures, and environments are planned.

Asking when they will be cured. People with disabilities are not looking to be cured or fixed and they will not appreciate you asking. Do not suggest they try a different diet, exercise, vitamin, treatment or therapy. They will not appreciate being asked about how many surgeries or treatments they have had.

Asking what happened. People with disabilities want to be treated the same as everyone else. They also don’t want to explain their medical history to everyone who asks, nor are they a teachable moment. Sometimes children are encouraged by their parents to ask a person with a disability in about themselves so the children become more comfortable.

Disrespect. Ignoring a person with a disability’s preferences for assistance or choosing to help a person without their permission is objectifying them. People with disabilities, especially those who may use a mobility aid, often do not need help. You should not touch them, touch, move or lean on their mobility aids without permission.


Inaccessible environments. A ramp doesn't necessarily make the building accessible, especially if the a ramp is an afterthought. Buildings may not have accessible bathroom facilities, accessible aisle space, or accessible doorways. There may not be accessible signage (braille, audible) in public spaces.

Underrepresentation or misrepresentation in all elements in society. TV shows and movies rarely write in people with disabilities and when they do, it is as token characters. When casting for roles with disability, Hollywood casts abled actors and actresses. Fiction writers rarely write characters with disabilities and when they do they often do so stereotypically. News, written or broadcast, portray people with disabilities as victims to pity or as inspirational characters for overcoming everyday experiences.

Lack of conversation or acknowledgement. While racism and sexism are part of school curriculum, disability studies are still rarely mentioned in education. Historical figures who had disabilities are not mentioned or their disability is written out of their biography. For example, Franklin Delano Roosevelt's use of a wheelchair is usually only briefly mentioned. Most biographies don’t mention Thomas Edison was deaf.

People with disabilities are not inspirational, brave or special. These terms are often used to describe people with disabilities when they accomplish something that is mundane or every day. Tthese terms say that you are surprised that a person with a disability is able to get out and live their lives the same as everyone else.


Use These Alternatives!

These Ableist words have been used to describe people with disabilities historically and are most often used in a negative manner when used in conversation today.  The library challenges you to pick an Ableist word that you use in conversation and eliminate it from you vocabulary. Plus using our alternative words will improve your vocabulary and impress others.

Instead of these Ableist Words/Phrases:             

Use these alternatives:

 ______ is so Bipolar Erratic, All over the place, Unreasonable, Back and Forth, Unstable

Bad, Awful, Gross, Uncool, Cheesy, Tacky, Corny

 I'm so OCD Meticulous, Neat, Picky
 Spaz, Retarded

Silly, Dorky, Cheesy, Nonsensical, Illogical

 Stupid, Retarded

Frustrating, Pointless, Annoying, Perplexing, Irritating, Obnoxious, Confusing, Foolish, Silly

 _________ is making me depressed Upset, Sad, Blue, Disappointed
 Crazy, Insane, Mental (meaning Intense)             Intense, Wild, Awesome, Very, Really, Amazing, Fascinating, Wicked Extremely
 Crazy, Insane, Mental (meaning Absurd)

Unreasonable, Absurd, Outrageous, Unacceptable, Ridiculous, Unreal, Unbelievable

 Psycho, Sociopath, Psychotic Dangerous, Menacing, Threatening, Evil, Murdering, Strange, Criminal


Don't make assumptions about a person or their disability. It is not for you to determine what a person wants, feels, needs, can or can’t do. If you are unsure about what assistance to offer, how to help, what to do, how to do it or what terminology or language to use, ask. The person with the disability is your best resource. It is also important to remember that what works for one person may not work for another.

Ask before you help. Always receive permission before you help a person with a disability. What you view as struggling might be their way of getting things done. If you do get permission to help, ask the person how they want the help. You can actually cause more problems by helping if the person is not expecting the help.

Be aware of personal space. Mobility aids are part of their user’s personal space. Moving, touching, or leaning on a mobility aid is the same as moving a person without their permission and can interfere with a person’s safety.

Talk directly to the user. While a person with a disability may have friends, family, or a helper with them, don’t talk to them. You don’t need to ignore the others, but focus on the person you are interacting with.

Speak normally.  If you are talking to an adult with a disability, talk to them the same as you would any other non-disabled adult. If you are talking to a child, make sure you speak to them the same as you would a non-disabled child of the same age. There is no need to talk louder or slower (unless requested), and while a person with a disability may have troubles communicating verbally, don’t assume that is connected to their ability to understand.

You can also use normal language like look and see without offending a person who is blind. When introducing a person with a disability to others, just use their name. There is no reason to include their disability in the introduction.

Use "people-first" language when talking about people with disabilities. This means putting the emphasis on the person and not their abilities, mobility devices, medical diagnosis or condition. Language has power and older descriptions of people with disabilities continue stereotypes and act as attitudinal barriers. A person has a condition, they are not the condition. A person uses or needs a mobility device, they are not confined or imprisoned by it.

Avoid potentially offensive terms or euphemisms. Continuing with the people-first language; many people find the following phrases annoying or offensive: restricted to a wheelchair, victim of, suffers from, retarded, deformed, crippled, and euphemisms such as physically challenged. If you are unsure, ask the person with a disability what terminology he prefers.


The History of Ableist Language

The term ableism evolved from the Disabled People's rights movements in the United States and Britain during the 1960s and 1970s. Ableism questioned and highlighted the prejudice and discrimination persons experience whose body structure and ability functioning was labeled as “impaired” as sub species-typical (Wolbring, 2008). An ableist society is said to be one that treats non-disabled individuals as the standard of ‘normal living’ which results in public and private places and services, education and social work that are built to serve ‘standard’ people, thereby inherently excluding those with various disabilities (Stop Ableism, 2018). Ableism is one of the most societally entrenched and accepted ‘isms’ and it exists in many forms where other ‘isms' like racism, sexism and heterosexism have been spurned by society.

Historically, people with disabilities or who were otherwise different from society’s typical were thought of as cursed by witchcraft,  possessed by demons, or punished by God for wrongdoing by themselves or their parents. Through history, societies evolved from killing their deformed or disabled young to institutionalizing those who could not be cured or rehabilitated. The Disabled People’s Movement has labeled the deficit point of view against normality as the ‘medical model’ or ‘individual model’, which is the assessments of impairments is viewed as what one cannot do, instead of what one can do (Attitudes2disability, 2007). 

The medical model sees disabled people as the problem and believes they need to be adapted to fit in the world as it is (Stop Ableism, 2018). The emphasis is on dependence, and that is reinforced by the stereotypes of disability that bring out pity, fear, and patronizing attitudes. The drive and power to change disabled people seem to lie with the medical and associated professions, with their talk of cures, normalization, and science (Attitudes2disability, 2007).  Often people with disabilities have their lives run by these professionals as their decisions affect where people with disabilities go to school; what support they get; where they live; what benefits they are entitled to; whether they can work; and even, at times, whether they are born at all, or allowed to have children themselves (Stop Ableism, 2018).

In addition, the built environment limits people with disabilities as they have been built with ‘standard’ people in mind. Medical model thinking would believe these problems are due to disabled person’s lack of rehabilitation, while the Disability Movement perceives these difficulties as the barriers that disable them and curtail their life chances (Attitudes2disability, 2007). For, if the environments were built to include all abilities, there would be no need for labels like disabled.


Overcoming Ableism: What You Don't Know As An Able Bodied Person | Naty Rico | TEDxUCIrvine

With Thanks

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This Libguide began was adapted from the American School of Madrid, which was adapted from the Simmons University Libguide, and has grown to include sources from our ASU resources and community. It is a work in progress with news, resources and links to actionable information.

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