What is Ableism?

Everyone was happy and warm in the spring sunshine. We’d had a lovely morning exploring the science museum, but now it was nearing lunch time and our bellies were starting to rumble. We walked over to the nearby restaurants: a row of beautifully preserved historic buildings, obviously well-kept and lovingly cared for.

The green one with the gorgeous wraparound porch and the lovely trim looked wonderful so we walked up to the front. As we expected there were steps up to the porch, so we looked to one side of the building, and then the other side, and…no ramp.

Someone in our group walked up the stairs and asked where was the wheelchair entrance?

One of the wait staff told us it was around the back and to meet her there. We trudged around to the back of the building where an industrial door opened and the waitress beckoned us inside. It quickly became apparent that we were right in the middle of their busy kitchen!

While we were being led towards the main dining room, I couldn’t help but draw parallels to what I was witnessing and what I’ve learned about segregation in this country. I thought about the “separate but equal” argument. While we did have to go through a back entrance, I also recognized that we didn’t have to deal with many other aspects of segregation, like sitting in a separate area of the restaurant and people getting upset to see us at the front of the restaurant. And, we actually were able to access the building, which is certainly not true of all historic buildings.

I still wondered what this separate entrance said about the value of people with disabilities.

I mean, it looked like it would have been easy enough to add a ramp to the front or side of the building. What does that say about how much this restaurant values their physically disabled patrons when they haven’t gone through the effort to add a ramp?

There is a word for limited access and what it says about people with disabilities: Ableism.

In the midst of all the racial tension in the U.S. right now, ableism still has yet to come up as a buzz word. But it is a real thing, and I bet you’ve witnessed it with your own child from time to time.

So what is ableism? What does it mean for your life as a parent?

I wrote a section on this topic in my new e-book: Whole, Worthy, and Valuable: A Guide for Parents Raising Disabled Children. This is such an important topic that I want to be available to everyone, so I’ve decided to share this excerpt on the blog today. If you really enjoy this excerpt and want to read more, make sure to purchase the e-book!

“Ableism is prejudice and discrimination against people with disabilities. Its an -ism just like racism, classism, and sexism. Ableism consists of all the ways that people with disabilities are told they are less worthy human beings than non-disabled people. Often this is done by devaluing the disabled way of doing things, leaving people out of decision making, or limiting access.

"When I was first writing examples of ableism for this e-book, I created one about how taking the stairs is no better than taking a ramp. However, I’ve come to realize that it’s not really about whether the stairs or a ramp are a better way to go up a floor; each may be better for different people in different situations. Rather, ableism is about the value we place on people when we put that ramp at the back of the building where no one goes or fail to have that ramp at all.

"Not captioning videos on YouTube tells Deaf people that they aren’t valuable enough to be an audience. The fact that almost all houses are completely inaccessible to wheelchairs tells people who use wheelchairs that they aren’t valuable enough to attend their friend’s dinner party. Leaving children out of IEP meetings tells them they aren’t valuable enough to have a say in their own education. Pricing the artwork of someone who paints with their mouth cheaper than other artists tells them they aren’t valuable enough to receive adequate compensation.

"Anytime someone brings up an -ism of any kind, people immediately get defensive. This is totally normal because being an -ist is so looked down upon in our society. I want to reframe that, though, because I believe that everyone is ableist. It’s not that everyone is a bad person, it’s simply that everyone has grown up in an ableist society and therefore everyone has internalized the messages we’ve received about the value of people with disabilities. Even disabled people have internalized these messages. Ableism isn’t just something a select few evil beings partake in, it’s a reflection of the values of a society we’ve all grown up in.

"Despite my knowledge of ableism, I still have ableist thoughts and actions at times, especially as a physical therapist. There have been times where I’ve only taken a parent’s goals for their child into account, instead of considering what the child is interested in. There have been times where I focus so hard on teaching a child to move in a more “normal” way because their parents are so worried about them looking different compared to other children. And there have been times where I don’t think to try a piece of equipment or new motor skill because of a child’s cognitive level. As much as I try not to do these things, they still happen, and I know to some extent things like this will always happen. No one is immune to ableist thoughts or actions.

"But there is a way to be better. We can stop devaluing people with disabilities and your child can grow up in a better world. To do this, we need to recognize the ableism within ourselves, and then do our best to change our own thoughts and actions. This isn’t easy, but it gets easier with a little compassion and belief that we’re doing the best we can, and we can always improve our choices in the future. After we’ve recognized ableism in ourselves, then we can choose to recognize ableism in the rest of the world, and help others see how ableism devalues people with disabilities.

"Ableism is a huge concept that cannot be fully understood in just a few paragraphs, but the following resources are a great place to continue learning about it. In her blog post, Leah Smith recounts some of her own experiences with ableism and gives a lot of great examples of what ableism looks like. In his TED Talk, Brendan Campbell describes how ableism has affected his own view of himself, and how he has learned to change his view. And in another TED Talk, non-disabled speaker Alyson Seale talks about the ways she has inadvertently been ableist and how non-disabled people can work together to fight against it.

"READ: "#Ableism" by Leah Smith (1)

"WATCH: Confronting Ableism by Brendan Campbell (2)

WATCH: Purposeful Steps Away from Ableism by Alyson Seale (3)"

If you really enjoyed reading this section, then check out the rest of the e-book. It’s packed with information and links from disabled creators, so you can learn how your child is whole, worthy, and valuable and how they can live a great life with their disability. You truly can enjoy life with your child and also help them live their best life.

Excerpt from:

Turner, C. (2020). Whole, worthy, and valuable: A guide for parents raising disabled children. Disabled and Successful. https://www.disabledandsuccessful.com/e-book


1. Smith, L. (n.d.). #Ableism. Center for Disability Rights. http://cdrnys.org/blog/uncategorized/ableism/

2. Campbell, B. (2019, April). Confronting ableism [Video]. TED. https://www.ted.com/talks/brendan_campbell_confronting_ableism

3. Seale, A. (2019, April). Purposeful steps away from ableism [Video]. TED. https://www.ted.com/talks/alyson_seale_purposeful_steps_away_from_ableism

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