What is ableism?

Ableism is manifested in our society in a variety of ways. Thomas Hehir, a disability activist and scholar describes ableism as “the devaluation of disability that, resulting in societal attitudes that uncritically assert that it is better for a child to walk than roll, speak than sign, read print than read Braille, spell independently than use a spell-check, and hang out with non-disabled kids as opposed to other disabled kids” (Hehir, 2002).

There is an English proverb that states, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” American society attempts to condition children to be “tough” and to ignore hurtful words and actions. Unfortunately words do hurt, and negative words, bullying, and being insensitive can have a pervasive impact on individuals.

Whether the words are used unconsciously or consciously doesn’t reduce the impact. Solorzano, Ceja, and Yosso (2001) explain this using their term “microaggressions,” which are the unconscious, automatic, and subtle insults directed towards a minority group. The insults can be verbal, non-verbal or visual. Often times these insults occur without the offender even being aware that their actions are negatively impacting others.

Research has shown that the cumulative effect of microaggresions can negatively impact both individuals and communities. Pierce (1995) explains the impact of prolonged exposure to discrimination, “In and of itself a microaggression may seem harmless, but the cumulative burden of a lifetime if microaggressions can theoretically contribute to a diminished mortality, augmented morbidity, and a flattened confidence.”

Person First Language

A simple rule to follow when speaking about people with disabilities is to acknowledge the disability, but put the person first. For example: “Person with a Disability” rather than “Disabled Person.” Person first language is a term and a movement based out of the disability rights movement and other advocacy groups beginning in the 1980’s.

Person-first language has been prescribed by advocacy groups, universities, and professional journals and associations as a linguistic norm; however its use has faced criticism. C. Edwin Vaughan states, “Many blind people are proud of the accomplishments of their brothers and sisters. Just as black became beautiful, blind is no longer a symbol of shame. To say, “I am blind” or “I am a blind person” no longer seems negative to many, particularly those groups with existential interest in the topic” (Vaughan, 2009).

There is no hard and fast rule relating to political correctness or etiquette in relation to disabilities.  *The following table presents some terms that are considered to be discriminatory and some alternative language that is more inclusive.

Non-inclusive discriminatory language Inclusive language

“special needs”

“special bus”

“special treatment”

Frames accommodations for a disability as “special treatment,” indicates that accommodations are a nuisance, a hassle, or something that isn’t really necessary. 


Inclusive terminology: Person(s) with disabilities, accommodations, education for people with disabilities.

“the disabled”  

“disabled people”

People with disabilities are not a homogeneous group. “Disabled people” puts the disability before the person. 


Inclusive terminology: Person(s)/people/individuals with disabilities

“wheelchair bound”  

“confined to a wheelchair”

It’s important to remember that not all people who use wheelchairs use them all the time. Confined/bound frames using a wheelchair as a negative/constricting experience. 


Inclusive terminology: “Julie is a full time wheelchair user,” “Julio is a part time wheelchair user.”

“Suffers from/sufferer/victim of”  

Example: “Consuelo suffers from depression.” “Gunther is a victim of a traumatic brain injury.”

We shouldn’t assume that a person with a disability is a victim or is suffering. Someone can be suffering and have a disability, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the person is suffering because of the disability. 

Inclusive terminology: “Consuelo has depression.” “Gunther has a traumatic brain injury.” These framings are value neutral. They provide information on the disability a person has, without turning victimizing them.

“mentally disabled” This term I vague, do you mean an intellectual or cognitive disability? “Mentally disabled,” in addition to often being read (and used) as a slur, is not terribly accurate. Any number of disabilities can involve the brain. 

Inclusive terminology: Cognitive, intellectual, or psychological disability.

“physically challenged” Disability is often framed as a “challenge” that must be “overcome” pressure is put on people with disabilities to be “brave.” 

Inclusive terminology: Person(s)/people/individuals with physical disabilities.

“crazy” Can be a destructive word, used to hurt people with mental disabilities. It’s used to discredit, to marginalize, and to shame people with psychological disabilities. Discourages people who have psychological disabilities to self-identify. 

Inclusive terminology: Person(s)/people/individuals with mental health problems, difficulties or conditions.

“spaz” Spaz/spak, both derived from “spastic” or other variations. Someone who is behaving erratically is spazzing or spakking out.



The use of the words lame, gimp, or retarded reinforces an underlying assumption that people who have a disability are also lesser and worthy of scorn, which in turn reinforces the underlying assumption that people with disabilities are inherently less than those without disabilities.
“Deaf and dumb” The original meaning of the phrase “deaf and dumb” was deaf (unable to hear) and unable to speak. It is an archaic and highly offensive phrase. Many Deaf people are able to speak. “Dumb” is also a synonym for “stupid.”


Ableism and Language written by: Jennifer Gossett for the What is Ableism? Workshop on November 15th, 2010


Solorzano, D., Ceja, M., & Yosso, T. (2000). Critical race theory, racial microaggressions, and campus racial climate. The Journal of Negro Education, Winter 2000(69), 60-73.

Pierce, C. (1995). Stress analogs of racism and sexism: Terrorism, torture, and disaster. In C. Willie, P. Rieker, B. Kramer, & B. Brown (Eds.), Mental health, racism, and sexism (pp. 277-293). Pitssburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Hehir, T. (2002). Eliminating ableism in education. Harvard Educational Review, 72(1), 1-33.

*Content for the table was collected and adapted from the following blogs:






More resources

Online PDFs:



Book: Microaggressions and Marginality: Manifestation, Dynamics, and Impact, Edited by Derald Wing Sue





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