Ableism and Stigma

Ableism is a set of negative attitudes, beliefs, and actions that consider disability as “not normal” but also less valuable in society. The impact of ableism is the exclusion of disabled people, so we cannot achieve our institutional and collective goals of equity and inclusion without eliminating ableism. This means shifting our conscious and unconscious beliefs, from viewing disability as negative and abnormal to seeing it as a universal and natural part of the spectrum of human diversity.

Systemic ableism is seen in the ways society is structured to grant unearned privilege to individuals perceived to be non-disabled and unearned disadvantage to those perceived as disabled; it is embedded in the institutions’ values, formal policies as well as everyday practices. Ontario post-secondary institutions can play a role in supporting or dismantling systemic ableism by removing barriers to the full participation of persons with disabilities.

There are a number of examples of ways that ableism is embedded in our institutions, specifically, barriers and attitudes disabled people encounter daily, which are exhausting and can explain why some students sometimes do not have the capacity to self-advocate or why they may see the ableism they encounter at post-secondary as normal. Some common examples of ableism include ignoring the needs of people with disabilities, such as not providing accommodations or assuming that they are not capable of participating in activities. Similarly, asking intrusive questions about a person’s disability, such as “what’s wrong with you?” is a common form of ableist violence, as is speaking to disabled people in a patronising way, such as using a high-pitched voice or speaking slowly.

Another form of ableism can be found in the belief that accommodations for disabled students are unfair advantages. For example, non-disabled students may complain that disabled students “get extra time”, when in fact spending more time to take a test can be a burden for the student, who now may have less time to spend on other things, like studying for other tests. To create more inclusive post-secondary institutions for disabled students, it is important for non-disabled people to be educated on the needs of disabled students and avoid these attitudinal barriers and behaviours.

Internalised ableism is the internalisation of negative attitudes and beliefs about disability by individuals with disabilities themselves. It can lead to self-doubt, isolation, and a lack of self-advocacy. Internalised ableism can manifest in various ways, such as:

  • Denial of disability: Feeling ashamed or embarrassed about their disability, leading them to deny or minimise it. This can lead to a reluctance to seek accommodations or support.
  • Internalised stereotypes: Internalising negative stereotypes about disability, leading them to view themselves as less capable or deserving of respect and equality.
  • Overcompensation: Feeling the need to overcompensate for their disability, leading them to push themselves beyond their limits or try to mask their disability (often seen in autistic students, students with learning disabilities and other non-evident disabilities).
  • Misunderstanding one’s disability: Feeling different from peers, or stupid, because no one ever explained to them what their disability is; most common for students with learning disabilities.

Post-secondary staff should be aware of the stigma associated with mental, physical, learning, and sensory disabilities and should reflect on the ways that ableism may show up in their interactions with disabled students and colleagues. Similarly to racism and sexism, ableism is a form of prejudice that we are steeped in as a society and, therefore, it can manifest in our actions and behaviours if we are not thoughtful and deliberate in avoiding it. For more information on this, see the CICMH Anti-Oppressive Practice Toolkit, parts 1 and 2.

Further reading on ableism:

Guide: PDF Version