Ableism History

Ableism is a neologism (a new word) of United States coinage used to describe effective discrimination against people with disabilities in favor of people who are not disabled. An ableist society is said to be one that treats non-disabled individuals as the standard of ‘normal living’, which results in public and private places and services, education, and social work that are built to serve 'standard' people, thereby inherently excluding those with various disabilities.

Traditionally, in many cultures around the world, people with physical, sensory or mental impairments were thought of as under the spell of witchcraft, possessed by demons, or as penitent sinners, being punished by God for wrong-doing by themselves or their parents. Ancient societies used to place deformed or otherwise disabled babies upon concrete slabs outdoors exposed to storms and other harsh elements, thus killing them gradually over the course of a few days. With the Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century, came a more scientific understanding of the causes of impairment and, with it, a sense of confidence in medical science’s ability to cure, or at least rehabilitate, disabled people. Some disabled people (often for social or political reasons) were deemed incurable and placed in long-stay institutions and special schools (or, today, in day-care centres). A notion of ‘normality’ was invested with great pseudo-scientific significance. It was based on assessments of impairments from a deficit point of view against normality: what one cannot do, instead of what one can do. This has been called ‘medical model’ (or ‘individual model’) thinking by the Disabled People’s Movement over the last 30 years. This is not to deny the very necessary role of medical science in keeping many disabled people alive, and reducing their pain and discomfort, but it is to argue that disabled people should not be reduced to just their impairments.

The Medical Model

The medical model sees disabled people as the problem. They need to be adapted to fit into the world as it is. If this isn’t possible, then they should be shut away in a specialised institution or isolated at home, where only their most basic needs are met. The emphasis is on dependence, backed up by the stereotypes of disability that bring out pity, fear and patronising attitudes. Usually, the impairment is focused on, rather than the needs of the person. The power to change disabled people seems to lie with the medical and associated professions, with their talk of cures, normalisation and science. Often, disabled people’s lives are handed over to these professionals. Their decisions affect where disabled people go to school; what support they get; where they live; what benefits they are entitled to; whether they can work; and even, at times, whether they are born at all, or allowed to have children themselves.

In addition, the Disability Movement points out how the built environment imposes further limitations on disabled people. Medical model thinking would say these problems are due to the disabled person’s lack of rehabilitation. The Disability Movement perceives the difficulties disabled people experience as the barriers that disable them and curtail their life chances. These difficulties include in school and higher education, in finding work and suitable work environments, accessing leisure and entertainment facilities, using private and public transport, obtaining suitable housing, or in their personal, family and social life.

Powerful and pervasive medical model views are reinforced in the media, books, films, comics, art and language. Many disabled people internalise negative views of themselves and develop feelings of low self-esteem and underachievement, which reinforce non-disabled people’s assessments of their worth. The medical model, plus the built environment and social attitudes it creates, lead to a cycle of dependency and exclusion which is difficult to break. This thinking predominates in filmmaking, leisure, work and education. In schools, for instance, special educational needs are considered the problem of the individual, who is seen as different, faulty and needing to be assessed and made as ‘normal’ as possible.


The presumption that everyone is non-disabled is said to encourage environments that are inaccessible to disabled people. It is a system by which mainstream society denigrates, devalues, and thus oppresses those with disabilities, while privileging those without disabilities, according to those who describe ableist circumstances.

In extreme cases, morality, worth and intelligence may even be equated to being able-bodied or able-minded, while disability is conflated with immorality, stupidity, and worthlessness, and disabled lives may be devalued. The eugenics movement of the 19th and 20th centuries, which took its most extreme form in Nazi Germany, was a product of this belief, and some believe the ‘right to die’ movement is also an outgrowth of ableist beliefs.


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. An ableist society tends towards isolation, pity, paternalism and low self-esteem among people with disabilities, whereas an inclusive society tends toward sociability and interdependency between the able-bodied and disabled.

Sources: Attitudes To Disability, Wikipedia

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