Content warning: The following page contains content including the historical context of ableism. It may be disturbing to those with a history of institutionalization or other negative experiences in the medical world concerning their specific disabilities.
Ableism: “A system that places value on people’s bodies and minds based on societally constructed ideas of normality, intelligence, excellence, desirability, and productivity. These constructed ideas are deeply rooted in anti-Blackness, eugenics, misogyny, colonialism, imperialism and capitalism. This form of systemic oppression leads to people and society determining who is valuable and worthy based on a person’s language, appearance, religion and/or their ability to satisfactorily [re]produce, excel and ‘behave.’ You do not have to be disabled to experience ableism”- working definition from TL via Office of Accessible Education’s presentation on Blackness and the Disability Experience.
Ableism can also be thought of as a set of beliefs or practices that devalue and discriminate against people with physical, intellectual, or psychiatric disabilities. Ableism rests on the assumption that disabled people need to be “fixed” or are “lesser” than typically abled people. As most structures in society were built without consultation or consideration of those living with disabilities, daily life is inherently “ableist”.
Ableism that is present in everyday life can include accessibility issues (e.g. lack of wheelchair ramps, transportation, or abled people using handicapped stalls), ignorance in how to interact with people who are disabled, derogatory ableist language, a lack of understanding around different types of disabilities, or treating people with disabilities as inferior or abnormal in a positive light (such as highlighting a disabled person’s daily experiences as “inspirational”).
Ableism is so pervasive and ignored, it’s been called the “oppression you’ve never heard of”. From thinking disability discrimination isn’t serious enough for a label like “ableism”, to minimizing the harm caused by it, to denying the intentionality of ableism, multiple structures and myths work to prevent people with disabilities from having independent mobility, avenues to employment, bodily autonomy, or access to adequate resources. In addition, these experiences of oppression interact with other social prejudices like racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, etc. For example, the physical pain of Black folx continues to be minimized or ignored by health care providers, fueling inadequate treatment planning and health disparities with mortal consequences. Stanford hospital and the Stanford campus is not exempt from this discrimination nor prejudicial medical treatment.
COVID-19 and current socio political rhetoric has only exacerbated these experiences of invisibilization and negligence. Social distancing, reduced transportation services, and decreased caretaking services all combine to increase isolation and lack of care. Fear of COVID-19 infection strains already broken systems supporting those with compromised immune systems and severely limits access to community. Even though 1 in 4 U.S. adults have a disability and about 60% of those in the U.S. have a chronic health condition that would make COVID-19 deadly, lawmakers have ignored the advocacy of disability activists and organizations. Both political and medical institutions continue to financially prioritize other groups, like businesses and more “deserving” patients, leaving those with disabilities without life-saving care.
In order to better understand the ways ableism shows up today, it’s important to look at ableism’s roots in history. In the beginning of the U.S. colonies, people with disabilities who were seen as unable to work were considered deep threats to the economy of the community. They were commonly run out of communities, via threats of violence, a process called “warning out.” Throughout early U.S. history, there were few public financial programs to support families of individuals with disabilities. A person with a disability whose family could not support them might be auctioned to the lowest bidder, who could provide them room and board for that year. Some state funded programs were inspired by pressure from citizens to care for disabled veterans of the Revolutionary War. Even this public option, like others in U.S. history, was challenged due to concerns about expense and a belief that it was enabling laziness. Dorothea Dix, and advocates of the moral treatment movement attempted to enact reforms by acknowledging the scope of the work, the broad spectrum of needs, lack of public resources allotted, lack of knowledge of disabilities, and other factors.
During the early 20th century, under the “Ugly Laws”, people with disabilities were removed from society and imprisoned in public poorhouses or jails. It was common to see people with disabilities working in dehumanizing roles where they performed to shock or amuse in public entertainment like circuses. Hospitals established themselves as institutions to treat people with what we now refer to as “invisible” disabilities, like mental illness, epilepsy, or developmental disabilities. These “hospitals” openly described their horrific and inhumane procedures, such as keeping individuals in chains or in basement cells and subjecting them to “treatment” such as bloodletting, starving, burning, and immersion in freezing water or abuse and neglect.
In the early 1900s, the American Eugenics movement targeted people with disabilities, using the medical model (which frames disability as a deficiency of the individual rather than as a neutral part of human experience) to identify them as “genetically” inferior. Eugenics in the U.S, which was widely accepted by many U.S. universities, including Stanford, and corporations in the early 20th century, advocated for and carried out forced sterilization, segregation of disabled people, as well as euthanasia of people deemed genetically “unfit.”- These practices targeted people with disabilities as well as low-income women and anyone not considered white. Examples of eugenic propaganda included the exclusion of disabled people in U.S. immigration policy and the eugenic language of assigning disability to “defective races,” which was used to further restrict entry. Eugenic theories developed in the US were adopted and advanced by the Nazi movement in Germany.
Programs that recognized or supported individuals with disabilities in the US during the mid 20th century generally occurred only when wars brought home formerly able-bodied men, now living with disabilities incurred in war. Disabled veterans advocated for resources, organizing and protesting for financial assistance, vocational training, medical care, and rehab services.
Even though this activism brought some support to veterans with disabilities, no progress was made to allow them, or anyone else with physical disabilities, access to public transportation, telephones, bathrooms, workplaces, medical clinics, or stores. The disability rights progress made in the past fifty years is the result of centuries of hard fought activism, and it is in no way complete. In the U.S., the Disability Rights movement coalesced in the 1960’s in solidarity with the Civil Rights Movement. Rolling Quads was the first disabled-led activist organization to make universities accessible and initiated the Independent Living Movement. The Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act , which prohibited workplace discrimination was only signed after intense protest and sit-ins. Kitty Cone, a leader in the Disability Rights movement, wrote about her experience of the sit-in, which was one of the longest sit-in occupations of a federal building and was led by disabled activists and supported by other groups such as the Black Panthers who brought food to the protesters during the month-long occupation.
(Image: Disability activists abandon their wheelchairs and mobility devices and crawl up the 83 stone steps of the U.S. Capitol Building demanding the passage of the Americans with Disability Act, March 12, 1990.)
2008 ADA Amendments Act, the ADA did not magically change long-standing patterns of discrimination and exclusion. The ADA was amended in 2008 to broaden who is it protects; lawsuits and challenges regularly occur to ensure the rights of people with disabilities under the ADA. These legal milestones parallel the movement away from a medical model towards a social model of disability, which recognizes that while difference is a fact, disability itself is created by social constructs. This shift points to the fact that environmental barriers faced by those with disabilities are people-made and thus able to be fixed or removed.
Remember, ableism interlocks with other systems of oppression like racism, homophobia, classism, etc. as well as institutions like the prison industrial complex and the mental health system. To successfully recognize and fight ableism, one must fight these other systems too. Make sure that you’re consuming a diverse range of media around disability- folx of all races, spiritualities, sexual identities, and socioeconomic classes have disabilities. Engage with intersectional organizations. Make sure who you hire, who you surround yourself with, and who you learn from also upholds these values and sees the world through an intersectional lens.
Educating yourself is an essential first step in combating ableism and ensuring that you are an effective ally. Disabilities can be visible when they impact a person's physical form or are seen through use of devices that increase mobility or access such as a hearing aid or a wheelchair. They can also be invisible, like chronic pain, fibromyalgia, Crohn’s disease, depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, trauma responses, learning disabilities, or autism. It is important to not make assumptions about disability status or identity, to be informed of the many ways people with disabilities experience and move through the world, and to continue to find and share resources.
Understand how others want to identify
Commit yourself to understanding and respecting how others want to identify. There are different ways to identify- some people in the disability community prefer “people-first” language and others “identity-first” language. People-first language would be: “person with Autism” while identity-first would be: “Autistic person” or just “Autistic”. People-first language is more prevalent in the U.S. right now, but identity-first language is commonly preferred in the Deaf community, and some people with Autism prefer to be identified as Autistic rather than “a person with Autism.” Ultimately, there is no one right way to identify with a disability. It’s always best to ask how a person identifies in terms of their disability to respect their choice and use their prefered of language.
Check your language
Consider how your choice of words can further ableist social constructs. Harmful words like “r*****”, “idiot”, “moron” uphold stigmatizing constructs like “feeblemindedness” and associate a negative connotation to disabilities, especially intellectual disabilities. Similarly, using mental health diagnoses (like ADHD or OCD) or words like “crazy” or “psycho” as adjectives to describe a person’s personality or actions perpetuates negative portrayals of people with mental health disabilities. Expand your vocabulary to find words that haven’t been used to marginalize people with disabilities. A great list, with alternatives for ableist phrases, can be found here.
Diversify your news and entertainment
Take steps to diversify your news and entertainment. Question media and entertainment that exploits “inspiration porn”, which portrays a disabled person as brave and inspirational for achieving ordinary, daily tasks. This type of trope also upholds prejudicial beliefs by infantilizing people with disabilities as people incapable of autonomy, sexuality, and competence. Make sure that your social media feeds feature accounts discussing disabilities and disability justice activism. Watch entertainment that includes characters with disabilities with diverse experiences, not just those that prop up stereotypes or those that center White narratives and underline #DisabilityTooWhite. When consuming news and media, actively work to ask yourself, “is this content including how those with disabilities are impacted?” and other questions that help you critically reflect on and challenge ableism.
Vote and get involved with disability activists and organizations
Since the 1800s, people with disabilities have been actively organizing to fight for social access and basic rights, and they have also been deeply involved in intersecting social movements to gain human rights for other oppressed identities. Organizations existed as early as the 1800s, but the turn of the century and the 1930s brought increased levels of organizing and activism. Continue this legacy by getting involved locally here at Stanford and by following a variety of activists involved in disability rights and advocacy globally and nationally. Read and participate in conferences or events where you can better understand the current work happening in the realm of disability rights and disability visibility. Knowing that some disabilities are further exacerbated by systems like racism and transphobia, make sure to support organizations that are intersectional and consider their voting suggestions. Vote and support campaigns for legislation and policies that combat ableism and uphold and strengthen disability rights.If you’re interested in getting involved with activism right here at Stanford, check out the many disability-related organizations on campus, like Stanford Disability Alliance (formerly known as Power2Act) and join the Abilities Hub.
Allies & Accomplices
Ableism creates a social sphere where people with visible disability may be ignored, infantilized, mistreated, or abused due to others’ ignorance or discomfort with disability. Learn how to interact appropriately with people who have a disability. Overcome your conditioning and bias in social situations- follow guidelines on respectful interaction, and treat a person with a disability the same way you would like to be treated. Help educate others and speak up when you see ableism occuring.
Part of allyship to any community is also centering the narratives of those in that community and actively working to decenter the voices, narratives, and values of those with power and privilege. In following the idea of “Nothing About Us Without Us”, first popularized in 1998 by South African disability rights activist James Charlton, it is important to remember to center people with disabilities in conversations which concern them. Ultimately, disability is part of diversity, and is about more than just access.
Ensure events you create or want to attend are accessible for all
In planning programming, ensure your Stanford or non-Stanford event is inclusive for people with disabilities. Recognize that accessibility includes the web and digital platforms. Make sure that your in person events are accessible for all types of disabilities, not just physical ones. Whether that’s providing a separate, private space for folx to handle mental health issues or take medicine or providing diverse transportation options and clear directions, ensuring broader accessibility allows for more participation and more diverse perspectives represented at your events.