Ableism is prejudice, stigma and discrimination aimed at disabled people. Ableism portrays individuals as defined by their disabilities, by what they cannot do, and as inherently inferior to nondisabled people.

“A system that places value on people’s bodies and minds based on societally constructed ideas of normalcy, intelligence, excellence and productivity… This form of systemic oppression leads to people and society determining who is valuable and worthy based on a person’s appearance and/or their ability to satisfactorily [re]produce, excel, and ‘behave.’   You do not have to be disabled to experience ableism.”  (Lewis, 2020)

Ableism is often paired with a desire to ‘cure’ the disability and make the person as ‘normal’ as possible, or to prevent the disability from occurring in the population. Many national disability organizations strive for prevention, rather than making life easier for disabled people. Thus, the disability rights slogan of “care, not cure.”

How ableism drives negative attitudes:

  • Anxiety in unstructured social encounters, lack of social norms about interactions with disabled people, leading nondisabled people to feel discomfort and to behave awkwardly.
  • Fears of mortality or morbidity can arise when nondisabled people encounter disabled people (“this could happen to me!”).
  • Social and cultural conditioning, as well as norms, emphasize disability as negative (e.g., “traffic was snarled due to a disabled truck” or “despite her disability she was successful in school,” and “what is beautiful is good”).
  • Prejudice-eliciting actions by disabled persons (e.g., dependence, insecurity, need for assistance) trigger negative feelings in nondisabled people (e.g., “He is an adult! Why can’t he take care of himself?”).
  • Gender and personality factors – women and people with higher educational levels are more positive towards disability than men or individuals with less education.
  • Hierarchical attitudes toward disability, where, quite simply but erroneously, some disabilities (e.g., physical ones) are viewed as more acceptable than others (e.g., mental or intellectual disabilities).
  • Moral beliefs about disability, while outdated, still occur, so that a disability implies punishment for sins or judgment on an individual or family.
  • Various other disability-related factors, including severity, visibility, perceived contagiousness, and predictability (e.g., disabilities that fade are more favorable than permanent ones).
  • Familiar responses toward minorities, so that disabled people are marginalized like other groups due to their race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and so on.

Nondisabled people may express explicitly favorable beliefs and feelings regarding disability while still harboring automatic, nonconscious, and decidedly negative (implicit) attitudes. They remain unaware that their implicit attitudesaffect their behavior toward disabled persons, overriding any positivity tied to their explicit attitudes.

How Do You Think About Disability?

            Look back over the list of reasons for ableism: Have you relied on one or more of these reasons for how you think about disability and disabled people? Which one(s) do you think you use or perhaps used in the past? Why did you do so? Can you point to any experience(s) or sources (e.g., television, advertising) that may have led you to associate disability with negative feelings or thoughts?


Ableism is common and, for most of us, unavoidable unless we work to change how we think, feel, and act towards people with disabilities. Write down a list of reasons that you or others might engage in ableist thinking. Once you do, reflect for a moment: How can you go about changing how you think the next time you encounter a disabled person or something that reminds you of disability?

Psychologist distinguish between fast and slow thinking. When we are in a fast thinking mode, we rely on shortcuts, including stereotypes, to make sense of our experience. These biases save time and mental energy—we can think quickly and easily—but we risk drawing false conclusions about people.

Slower, more careful cognition requires us to engage in critical thinking in order to revisit and to perhaps revise our earlier conclusions. By slowing down and questioning our assumptions or even conclusions about disability, we may be able to reduce the likelihood that we will engage in ableist thinking.

Take a few minutes and reflect on the reason or reasons you may have engaged in ableist thinking in the past. How can you try to avoid doing so in the future? What (slower) alternative views or beliefs can you identify now to counter previous (faster) conclusions about disability?

How will you remind yourself to think more carefully and slowly the next time you encounter something or someone who makes you think about how you feel about disability?