In this bulletin, we will be discussing the topic of Ableism. You’ll be able to find sections including definitions involving ableism, history, videos, articles/handouts, statistics, and questions to ponder.

When discussing ableism it is important to not label people either able or disable. Because someone can become disabled or overcome disabilities (physical or mental) in their lifetime we use the terms temporarily able and temporarily disable. In the same breath, it is also important to refer to people with disabilities as people with disabilities not disabled people because the person comes before the disability.


Ableism: Ableism is the intentional or unintentional discrimination or oppression of individuals with disabilities.

Disability: Having a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. This is includes people who have a record of such an impairment, even if they do not currently have a disability. It also includes individuals who do not have a disability but are regarded as having a disability.

Inclusion: Inclusion, comparatively, means that all products, services, and societal opportunities and resources are fully accessible, welcoming, functional and usable for as many different types of abilities as reasonably possible.

Accessibility: The quality of being possible to get into, use, make use of.

Equity: The quality of being fair, impartial, even, just.

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990: states that someone is disabled if he or she “a) has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities; b) has a record of such an impairment; or c) is regarded as having such an impairment.”

(SOURCE: U.S. Department of Labor Employment Standards Administration Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs)

The ADA’s broad, three-pronged definition of disability focuses on functional ability rather than specific medical diagnosis to extend its legal protections to the full range of persons with disabilities. A person with a disability is defined as someone who experiences a physical or mental condition that limits the ability to perform a major life activity, such as walking, breathing, seeing, hearing, thinking, or working. The second prong of the ADA definition goes further in defining people who might be discriminated against on the basis of disability by saying that people who have a record or history of a disability are also protected from discrimination under this law. In addition, the third prong protects people who have no disability at all but who are perceived to have a disability. The second and third prongs of the ADA definitions were established in recognition that disability discrimination is a phenomenon unto itself and that disability discrimination results from misconceptions and prejudice that are partly or wholly unrelated to the reality of disability itself.


  • Mobility: Spinal Cord Injuries, Disease, Paralysis, Amputation
  • Psychiatric: Depression, Bipolar Disorder, Schizophrenia, Post Traumatic Stress
  • Auditory: Deaf, Hearing Impaired
  • Cognitive/Developmental/Intellectual: Autism Spectrum, Learning Disabilities
  • Speech: Speech Impediment, Vocal Paralysis
  • Environmental: Allergies, Chemical Sensitivities
  • Medical: Cancer, AIDS, Epilepsy, Asthma, Diabetes, Myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS), Cystic Fibrosis, Severe Arthritis


Video Gallery

I’m Not Your Inspiration Thank You Very Much

TALK TO ME | Physical Disability Awareness

Including Samuel Preview

Social Justice Project – Ableism

We’re More Alike Than Different

More Information


  • According to the US census bureau people with severe disabilities working full time earn approximately $1,000.00 less per month than non-disabled workers.
  • 54 million Americans have a disability.
  • 13.3 million people with disabilities age 16-64 have experienced difficulty finding employment because of their disability.
  • In 2008, only 98% of all transit buses were equipped with a wheelchair ramp or lift.
  • In 2008, only 13% of people age 25 or older had a bachelor’s degree or higher.
  • In 2010 the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) reported that 25,165 charges of disability discrimination were filed.


Brief Perspective on the Historical Treatment of People with Disabilities:

1200 – 1700

  • Belief that “mentally ill” people were possessed by the devil or evil spirits
  • Regularly whipped, tortured and burned at stake.
  • Ejected from hospitals and shelters – forced to beg on streets – and given a cap in which to collect alms – this is the origin of the name “handicap” and why many contemporary people are offended by that title.


  • 1800- Science begins to replace religion as the main authority guiding leaders in the west. Instead of being seen as having a spiritual deficit, people with disabilities are seen as having a genetic deficit. Thus they are placed under the care of medical professions, educators and social workers.
  • 1800- State mental hospitals were the first formal system of public care for the “mentally ill” in the U.S.
  • 1817 – first school for the deaf in the U.S.: American Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb, Hartford, CT
  • 1832- The Perkins School for the Blind in Boston admits its first two students.
  • 1848-The first residential institute for people with mental retardation is founded in Boston
  • 1849- MA legislatures appropriate funds to create MA School for Idiotic Child and Youth in Boston.
  • 1850 – Eugenics Movement begins. Goal to improve the quality of the human gene pool. People with disabilities were segregated and hidden (institutions, asylums, hospitals, segregated schools, sheltered workshops, attics) or placed on display as entertainment (freak shows, circuses).


  • 1860 – The Braille System was introduced to America
  • 1864 – The enabling act giving the Columbia Institution for the Deaf and Dumb and Blind the authority to confer college degrees is signed by President Abraham Lincoln, making it the first college in the world expressly established for people with disabilities.
  • 1867 – every American school for the deaf was taught in sign language

Eugenics – Sterilization

  • 1883- The Eugenics movement, taken up by Americans, leads to the passage in the United States of laws to prevent people with disabilities from moving to this country, marrying or having children. In many instances, it leads to the institutionalization and forced sterilization of disabled people, including children.
  • 1907- Indiana became the first of 29 states to pass compulsory sterilization laws directed at people with genetic illness or conditions.
  • 1920 – institutionalization of people with disabilities is seen as best for them and for society. People with disabilities seen as a “drag on civilization.”
  • 1922 – Harry Laughlin (part of the eugenics movement) drew up a model sterilization law, which served as an example for numerous state legislators. “It required the sterilization of the following “defective” classes: 1) feebleminded; 2) insane; 3) criminalistics; 4) epileptic; 5)inebriate; 6) diseased; 7) blind; 8) deaf; 9) deformed; 10) dependent”
  • 1924- The Commonwealth of Virginia passed a state law that allowed for sterilization (without consent) of individuals found to be “feebleminded, insane, depressed, mentally handicapped, epileptic and other.”
  • 1927 – The Buck v Bell Supreme Court decision ruled that forced sterilization of people with disabilities was not a violation of their constitutional rights. The decision removed all restraints on eugenicist. By the 1970s, over 60,000 disabled people where sterilized without their consent.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court upheld Commonwealth of Virginia as constitutional.
  • 1937 – Poll in the U.S. indicates that 45% of the population favor euthanasia for “defective infants”
  • 1938 – 33 States pass sterilization laws
  • 1939 – Germany – 70,000 adults and 5,000 children put to death in initial phase and 200,000 killed in total (get rid of people who polluted Aryan race)
  • 1942 – An article in the professional journal of the American Psychiatric Association calling for killing all “retarded children under the age of five”: F. Kennedy, “The problem of Social Control of the Congenital Defective: Education, Sterilization, Euthanasia.” American Journal of Psychiatry, 99(1), 13–16.


  • Congress enacts the Hill- Burton Act, authorizing federal grants to the states for he construction of hospitals, public health centers and health facilities for rehabilitation of people with disables.
  • The National Mental Health Foundation was founded by WWII conscientious objectors who served as attendants at state mental institutions rather than the war. The foundation exposed the abusive conditions at these facilitates that became an impetus towards deinstitutionalization.


  • 1950- Congress enacts the Hill- Burton Act, authorizing federal grants to the states for he construction of hospitals, public health centers and health facilities for rehabilitation of people with disables.
  • 1950- The National Mental Health Foundation was founded by WWII conscientious objectors who served as attendants at state mental institutions rather than the war. The foundation exposed the abusive conditions at these facilitates that became an impetus towards deinstitutionalization.
  • 1950 Laws still on the books in some states prohibiting persons “diseased, maimed, mutilated or in anyway deformed so as to be in unsightly or disguising object” from appearing in public.
  • 1954- Brown v. Board of Education passed
  • 1954, 1956, 1958 amendments made to social security – retirement, age 50-64, insurance for dependents.


  • 1961- President Kennedy appoints a special President’s Panel on Mental Retardation.
  • 1963- President Kennedy address congress calling for reduction of institutionalization over the next few years of mentally ill and retarded.
  • 1964- Urban Mass Transportation Act
  • 1965- Medicare and Medicaid are established
  • 1968- Buck v Bell repealed, but sterilization under it continued until 1972


  • 1970- Independent Living movement begins
  • 1970- The Urban Mass Transit Act requires all mass transit vehicles to be equipped with wheelchair lift.
  • 1970- Education of the Handicapped Act – state granted programs were expanded for children with disabilities. Higher education institutes given money to train Special Education Teachers.
  • 1971- The Caption Center is founded at WGBH Public Television in Boston – it begins providing closed captioned programming.
  • 1971- U.S. District Court decided in Wyatt V Stickney that disabled people were no longer to be locked away in custodial institutions without treatment or education.
  • 1973- Rehabilitation Act of 1973 omitted the word “vocational” from rehabilitation legislation for the first time in 53-year history – 501, 503, 504 changed.
    • “Curb cuts in sidewalks, specially designated handicapped parking spaces, accessible public transportation, ramps into public buildings, universities with special services for disabled students, equal employment practices and many other changes are either partially or wholly result of section 504.”
  • 1975 – Education for All Handicapped Children Act passes.
  • 1975- O’Connor v Donaldson, rules that people cannot be institutionalized against their will in a psychiatric hospital unless they are determined to be a threat to themselves or to others.
  • 1979- Southeastern Community College v Davis – programs receiving federal funds must make “reasonable modifications” to enable the participants of otherwise qualified disabled individuals.


  • 1981- Reagan Administration terminates the Social Security benefits of hundreds of thousands of disabled recipients.
  • 1984- Congress passes the Social Security Disability Reform Act in response to complaints to hundreds of thousands of people who’s benefits were terminated.
  • 1985-Burlington School Committee v Department of Education


  • 1990- American with Disabilities Act becomes federal law. Extends protection to the private sector.
  • 1990- Technology advances result in greater freedom, access and independence.
  • 1990- Deinstitutionalization – “mentally retarded and mentally ill allowed to live and work in the community”
  • 1993- Holland v. Sacramento City Unified School District – affirms the right of disabled children to attend public school classes with non-disabled children.


  • 2002- No Child Left Behind
  • 2004 – Individuals with Disability Education Improvement Act

Social Model of Disability versus Medical Model:

The NCCJ supports the Social Model of Disability as it does not see the individual as the problem but instead societal barriers.

Adopted from: © Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice, Second Edition, Routledge, 2007


  • What are situations where you have heard/used ableist language?
  • What are the individual, cultural, institutional, or any other changes that can create a more inclusive society?
  • How do you think your reactions to people with disabilities affect people with disabilities?
  • In what ways is the world/environment designed to benefit your learning style, physical ability or psychological needs? 


Disability Etiquette



Doing Social Justice: 10 Reasons to Give Up Ableist Language

15 Crazy Examples Insanely Ableist Language

The Transcontinental disability choir, What ableist language and why you should care

Ableist words and terms to avoid (also included alternative words to use)

It’s Not Only Steps us out mainstream feminism must stop ignoring disabled women



Brown University: Student and Employee Accessibility Services – Appropriate Terminology

An Introductory Guide to Disability Language and Empowerment

*All definitions and information provided is United States based.


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