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Challenging Ableism

What is ableism?

Ableism is defined as any form of discrimination, bias or prejudice against persons with disabilities. It is based on the perception that disabled individuals are inferior to non-disabled people and need to be “fixed.” Ableism can be demonstrated through harmful attitudes, stereotypes and beliefs. This negatively impacts their quality of life and lived experiences. 

Through education and awareness, ableism can be unlearned. It is important to first recognize the ways in which ableism manifests, such as biases and microaggressions.

Ableist attitudes “…may be conscious or unconscious, and may be embedded in institutions, systems, or the broader culture of a society. This can result in the limitation of opportunities for persons with disabilities and reduce their inclusion in the life of their communities.”

Ontario Human Rights Commission

Bias, discrimination, and microaggressions

Implicit bias is defined as an unconscious preference for a particular person or group, or the reverse; prejudice against a person or group. It includes underlying beliefs and assumptions that shape an individual’s behaviour and attitudes. Examples of implicit bias against students with disabilities include:

  • Believing that students with disabilities will be less successful than their nondisabled counterparts.
  • Assuming that students with disabilities will not pursue education in specific programs (e.g. STEM fields).
  • Not providing students with disabilities the opportunity to participate in lab and field work based on the assumption that they don’t have the ability. 
  • Believing that students with disabilities will not be able to equally contribute to group work/projects. 

Microaggressions occur as a result of implicit bias. Microaggressions are defined as behaviours or verbal interactions that subtly display bias or prejudice towards an individual or group. Microaggressions against persons with disabilities are rooted in ableist beliefs and are often unintentional or well intended. Examples of microaggressions against persons with disabilities include:

  • Delegating a task to someone else because you assume that the person with a disability cannot help you.
  • Making unsolicited comments such as “You’re so brave” or “I’m so sorry” to a person with a disability.
  • Providing assistance to a disabled person without first asking them if they need your help. 
  • Speaking to a disabled person in a childlike manner.


Unlike microaggressions, micro-affirmations are subtle behaviours and actions that showcase validation and are an element of allyship and a way to show support.. Examples include:

  • Acknowledging the works of those who are often uncredited.
  • Actively engaging in conversations when someone is sharing a personal experience.
  • Participating in commemorative days such as International Day of Persons with Disabilities with workplace events and initiatives.
  • Encouraging participation from every member of a team.
  • Openly recognizing accomplishments, expertise and skills.

Identity and disclosure

It is important to recognize that how someone chooses to identify can be both personal and political. Not all persons with disabilities choose to self-identify as having a disability, due to a number of factors. For example, in the Deaf community, individuals who are born Deaf may not identify as “disabled” but rather as “culturally Deaf.”

External elements such as inaccessible environments and ableist attitudes and behaviours create stigma that can lead to a negative self-identity and internalized oppression. This is especially true for those with non-visible/hidden disabilities for whom disclosing a disability can be invasive due to increased “burden of proof” along with doubts about the person’s need for accommodations.

In a post-secondary environment, these factors may prevent students with non-visible disabilities from seeking academic accommodations and other support services. Similarly, disabled staff and faculty may feel uncomfortable disclosing and therefore, be unable to achieve their full potential as employees.

The choice or need to disclose a disability is influenced by several factors. These may include type of disability, personal experience, institutional culture, perceptions and assumptions about disability, lack of confidentiality, and the requirements to obtain accommodations. People with intersecting identities often experience added oppression as members of multiple marginalized communities, which plays a role in their decision to disclose a disability. 

Persons with disabilities may consider a cost-benefit analysis when deciding whether or not to disclose their disability. The benefit of having accommodations is often at the expense of one’s time and emotional labor.  Students with disabilities may hesitate to request accommodations due to myths upheld in higher education. For example, the belief that accommodations provide an unfair advantage and devalues one's academic achievement. Similar disclosure challenges are faced by employees in the workplace. For example, myths around increased costs to accommodate employees with disabilities and assumptions that they will take more sick days. In this way, persons with disabilities are more likely to be viewed as a liability in the workplace and employers may have skepticism about one’s ability, even when disability is not disclosed but is suspected. As a result, the decision-making process can be extremely difficult and frustrating, and employees with disabilities may take on more pressure to prove themselves in the workplace. 

Creating a culture of trust and inclusion facilitates a welcoming environment where persons with disabilities feel comfortable to disclose and request accommodations when needed. Failure to recognize barriers in a one-size-fits-all environment increases the need for accommodation. Conversely, adopting inclusive design strategies reduces accommodation needs and subsequently the need to disclose in the first place.

Language and terminology  

Person-first vs identity-first language

The language people use to refer to themselves is a personal choice. Some individuals may prefer “person-first” language, that is language which addresses the individual before their disability, so that the focus is on them as people first. For example, “person who is blind” rather than “blind person.” Other individuals prefer “identify-first” language (i.e. “disabled person” instead of “person with a disability”.) This emphasizes the social model of disability perspective that identifies people as being disabled by their environment rather than any particular condition of their body, which then shifts the “problem” from the individual to the environment. When interacting, be mindful of the way people self-identify and follow their lead on the language they use to describe disability, and themselves.

Language shapes how we think about and understand our world and the people in it. The language used to describe disability can have a significant impact on how disabled people are perceived by others. Language can shape attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors, and the way disability is talked about can contribute to either positive or negative attitudes towards disabled individuals. Overall, language has the power to shape attitudes towards disability and disabled people. By using language that is respectful, inclusive, and empowering, we can create a more inclusive society for all.

Inclusive language guidelines

Inclusive language is language that is free from terminology, tones or phrases that reflect stereotyped or discriminatory views of particular people or groups. Explore the following inclusive language guidelines:


What to keep in mind when communicating with persons with disabilities.

  • Be respectful.
  • Speak in an age-appropriate tone and treat adults as adults.
  • Avoid stereotypes and assumptions about a person’s disability or capabilities. 
  • Speak to and look directly at the person with a disability even though the message may be coming from a support person, companion or interpreter.
  • Be patient – sometimes communicating with someone with a disability may take a bit longer.
  • Avoid touching or interacting with a service animal. Do not request that the owner leave the animal in a different location, such as outside an office or classroom.
  • Do not touch the person or their assistive devices without permission. Think of any assistive device as an extension of the person’s personal space.
  • It is always best to ask the person with a disability prior to offering assistance.
  • Ask the person with a disability what form of communication works best for them. For example, even if you have written notes, it may help to verbalize the information.
  • Never pretend to understand someone with a speech impairment if you don’t. Instead, repeat what you’ve understood and allow the person to clarify if needed. 
  • Avoid negative and outdated phrases such as crippled, invalid, “confined to a wheelchair,” “wheelchair bound,” “suffers from,” or “victim of.”
  • Avoid euphemisms such as “differently-abled,” “special needs,” and “mentally/physically challenged.”
  • Respect individual preferences. Language is subjective so it’s important to respect how individuals describe themselves. Take their cues or simply ask if you are unsure.
Wheelchair symbol.

Universal access symbols

Use universal access symbols to promote and communicate accessibility features of places, rooms, programs and activities for people with disabilities. 


Intersectionality is important in disability discourse, as persons with disabilities who identify with other historically marginalized groups are often subject to greater inequities and face more barriers to their inclusion in society. Understanding disability from the various perspectives that diversify the experiences of persons with disabilities is essential in unlearning ableism. For example, lived experiences of persons with disabilities may vary widely based on cultural, religious, geographic and other variables. Therefore, accessibility and barriers must be understood from an intersectional lens that goes beyond the dominant Western paradigm.

Expand your learning

To learn more about identifying and addressing barriers to accessibility, please read the Discourse Doc on accessibility from the Office of the Vice-President, Equity and Community Inclusion.

Explore these external resources to support your learning and unlearning: