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Ableism: Definition, Meaning, Origin and Examples of an Ableist Society

Examples of ableism. A clipart showing often asked questions by an ableist society
Samyak Lalit
Samyak Lalit | December 21, 2021 (Last update: December 21, 2021)

Samyak Lalit is an author and disability rights activist. He is a polio survivor and the founder of projects like Kavita Kosh, Gadya Kosh, TechWelkin, WeCapable, Dashamlav and Viklangta Dot Com. Website:

Ableism is a very wide topic with numerous implications. It affects the life of an individual, especially a disabled individual, in myriads of ways. But, before jumping on the impacts or manifestation of ableism let us start with understanding the meaning of the word – ableism.

Going by the dictionary meaning, ableism is the discrimination or prejudices against people with disabilities. Somehow, the dictionary meaning fails to provide the complete scope of the word. Therefore, it is important to understand ableism as a concept.

Our world has been built for the able-bodied individuals. It fails to be truly empathetic towards someone who lacks in their physical or mental abilities. The society formed around this lack of empathy tends to see disabled individuals as someone inferior to those without a disability. It sees disability as something that needs to be cured or eliminated. Such a society sees the disabled individuals as someone who needs to be fixed in order to be at par with other individuals in society. This is called ableism.

“Ableism sees disabled individuals as inferior to the non-disabled individuals.”

Origin of the Concept of Ableism

Do you remember Darwin’s concept of the survival of the fittest? The concept was not applicable to the evolution and survival of different species but also the survival of individuals within a species. Humans, who did not have the physical ability to hunt and gather, were not fit for survival. So, as a basic instinct person with disabilities seemed inferior to those without disabilities.

With changing time the value of physical strength and abilities for human survival reduced significantly. But, the basic instinct to see disabled individuals as inferior remained the same. When democracy became the most effective form of political system people started exerting pressure to demand their human rights. It was around the 1960s and 1970s when activists started placing disability in political context for demanding equal rights for disabled individuals.

The term ‘ableism’ was first coined by US feminists in the 1980s and gradually got accepted worldwide. The activists stressed the fact that society sees individuals without disabilities as superior beings and wants disabled individuals to qualify to their standard to be treated equally. This leads to discrimination and prejudices against persons with disabilities at every stage of their life.

Examples of Ableism in Daily Life

Ableism manifests itself in various forms in a person’s life especially if they are disabled. Most of the time we ignore or tend not to care about such instances but as a society, we need to weed out ableist action as well as thoughts from society. It is necessary to make the world a better place for everybody.

Examples of ableism. A clipart showing often asked questions by an ableist society

Following are some of the common examples of ableism we encounter in day-to-day life:

  • Suggesting people with disabilities some cure for their disability – This is one of the most common ableist attitudes faced by persons with disabilities. People see persons with disabilities as someone who needs to be fixed hence as soon as they meet someone with a disability they either want to pray for their cure, suggest them a remedy or a doctor, or asks them about the treatment they are taking for their disability. This is an ableist attitude.
  • Treating PwDs like kids or nobody – People tend to baby-talk with persons with disabilities or they talk to someone who is with the disabled person even when the talk is about the person with a disability. Persons with Disabilities should be treated with dignity just like you would treat a non-disabled individual.
  • Building inaccessible infrastructureInaccessible infrastructure puts unnecessary hindrances in the lives of persons with disabilities. Building inaccessible infrastructure is ignoring the human rights of persons with disabilities. This is an ableist approach.
  • Discriminating against persons with disabilities – Discrimination against persons with disabilities is rooted in an ableist attitude. Any kind of discrimination against PwDs like segregating them or mocking them is always wrong.
  • Using ableist language – complimenting someone by saying “you are so beautiful despite your disability” or you do not look like a disabled” is an example of ableist attitude. Words like stupid, insane, etc. are part of the ableist dictionary that sees disability as inferior.

These are just a few examples of ableism to help you understand in how many forms can ableism affect a person’s life.

Types of Ableism

Based on the manifestation, ableism can be divided into following categories –

  • Physical Ableism – The ableism that manifests in the form of discrimination against persons with a disability based on a person’s physical appearance.
  • Mental Ableism – It is the discrimination based on the mental health condition of an individual or their cognitive abilities.
  • Medical Ableism – The medical model of disability is based on medical ableism. It sees persons with disabilities as something that need to be fixed. It quantifies individuals against the standard ‘normal’ body and seeks to make every body at par with the normal body.
  • Structural Ableism – It is the ableism that creates structural hindrances by creating inaccessible infrastructure. Failing to provide accessibility to persons with disabilities in the form of ramps, special education, accessibility features in websites, etc. fall under the category of structural ableism.
  • Cultural Ableism – It is the social discrimination done against persons with disabilities. The examples may include exclusion of persons with disabilities from social gatherings or not treating persons with disabilities with equality in society.
  • Internalized Ableism – The internalized ableism is the most unique category of ableism; it is discrimination done by a disabled individuals against themselves and other disabled individuals. When a disabled individual thinks that disability is something to be ashamed of and sees herself as inferior to others then it is due to internalized ableism.
  • Hostile Ableism – When social or cultural ableism gets hostile towards certain disability or disabled individuals then it is called hostile ableism. An example may include disowning of a child with a disability. Eugenics is also an example of hostile ableism.
  • Benevolent Ableism – This is the discrimination where disabled individuals are seen as someone that needs to be taken care of like a child. In this type of ableism, the disabled individual is not seen as a participating adult.
  • Ambivalent Ableism – This ableism lies somewhere between hostile and benevolent ableism.

As a reader of WeCapable, you should understand that disability may make someone different but it doesn’t make someone inferior. Let us together try to make the world a better place to live by dropping ableism from our thought, action, and words. For most persons with disabilities ableism is a bigger hurdle than their disability.

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