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Ableism is a form of discrimination or prejudice that affects people with disabilities. Ableism manifests in multiple ways, from milder forms like insults and bullying, to serious issues like abuse apologism and murder. It is based on the idea that people with disabilities are somehow "less than" people without them. It can take more blatant forms, like bullying and neglecting people with disabilities, or more subtle forms, like talking down to disabled people, acting as if their disability does not exist no matter the evidence given and treating them like children or objects of pity.

Historical persecution[edit]

In Nazi Germany, those with disabilities were targeted for extermination due to being seen as biologically inferior and a threat to the building of a "genetically superior" race. Over 300,000 people with disabilities were sterilized and over 200,000 were killed during the Nazi regime for having either mental or physical disabilities. Hans Asperger, for whom Asperger's syndrome is named, concluded that the hyperfocused nature of his patients meant some were worth keeping around for the rest of society to use as drones or useful idiots, but sent many more to a nearby facility where they met certain death.

While the Nazis are perhaps the most extreme example of ableism, it was not uncommon for other countries, including the United States, to promote the sterilization of those with disabilities during the heyday of eugenics.[1]

Communists were not immune to these ideas, either. The Soviet Union segregated children with disabilities from the rest of society for standing in the way of building a communist society.[2] The disabled were likewise victimized by Pol Pot's regime for being unable to either work on or make the journey to collectivized farms.[3]


Ableist language[edit]

Ableism can be understood as use of language that may be disparaging to people with disabilities, even if used to refer to something unrelated.[4] Among the more commonly disparaged examples is the use of the word 'retarded' as a descriptor of a person or a person's actions, or labeling political ideologies one disagrees with as mental disorders.

The strongest examples of ableist language include derogatory terms like "retard," "cripple," "spaz," and "midget" (though "spaz" in American English has long lost the offensive connotations that it has elsewhere, which has lead to some embarrassing misunderstandings[5][6]). Some people define ableist language to be more broadly, to include words like "crazy," "lame," and "dumb." They argue that these words can be hurtful. For example, saying "anti-vaxxers are crazy" might be insulting to people with mental illnesses, who may not appreciate being compared to anti-vaxxers. Other people argue that milder ableist language is not a big deal, and that it's unhelpful to act like people with disabilities have incredibly thin skins.[7]

Armchair diagnoses[edit]

People on social media sometimes enjoy trying to armchair diagnose people they don't like. One example is #DiagnoseTrump, in which people tried to armchair diagnose Donald Trump with mental illness, much to the horror of some people with actual mental illnesses who felt very insulted by the comparison.[8][9] This rarely does much to actually harm the person's reputation, and mostly just throws people with disabilities under the bus.


Treating persons with apparent disabilities as deficient or incapable, even if well meaning, further affects people with disabilities even beyond their actual disability. Speaking to a person using a wheelchair as if they were a child disempowers and likely insults the person with a disability.


In some theories of disability, the extent of the disability is exaggerated or even fully created by the physical and social environment surrounding people,[10] rather than by the consequences of any actual impairment. Elevators, for example, that don't accommodate people with vision impairments can be seen to be a barrier to full function. In this theory, a failure to create a physical environment suitable for all to use is a form of ableism, one that is either legally sanctioned or not addressed through straightforward legislation.

The US allows employers to pay disabled people less than minimum wage.[11][12]


Ableism remains a problem at the societal level.

Cruel "charities"[edit]

The existence of disabled people has spawned numerous charities dedicated to preventing or profiting off of their existence. One high-profile example is Autism Speaks, a group that demonizes autistic people while showing sympathy and pity for parents of autistic children. Blaming autistic children for divorce and financial ruin, the so-called "charity" isn't above telling a few lies or hurting thousands of autistics.

Modern eugenics[edit]

The message about disability is loud and clear: the prospect of having a disabled child is not acceptable for many prospective parents.
—Joan Hume[13]

The widespread abortion of fetuses with certain disabilities sends some less-than-positive messages to people who live with those disabilities. One report noted that nearly 100% of Icelandic families abort fetuses that test positive for Down syndrome (although some families choose to forego testing).[14]

Similar arguments apply to euthanasia: while some disabled people may consider it a matter of equality to have the right to die, many are concerned that it could drive disabled people towards euthanasia in preference to more important needs like the provision of adequate healthcare when many disabled people are unable to access healthcare services.[15]

Sterilization of disabled people has not died out, either. While some disabled people do make the choice to be sterilized (just like some non-disabled people), there are US states with laws allowing people with disabilities to be sterilized without their consent.[16]

Abuse and neglect[edit]

Children and adults with disabilities are at higher risk of being abused, neglected,[17][18][19] and homeless.[20] Abusive people may see disabled people as subhuman, or as easy targets. Bad parents may reject or mistreat their children due to perceived defects or "disobedience" caused by the disability.

Police lack training to communicate with disabled people. Too many police officers resort to force that can escalate to violence. This has led to the deaths of several disabled people.[21] Disabled prisoners are especially vulnerable to abuse.[22]

Deaf people have reported the lack of sign language interpreters in hospitals.[23][24]

Abuse in therapy and education[edit]

Imagine if someone punished you whenever you cried when you were hurt or sad. Imagine if someone took away things in your life that made you feel better when you were hurt and uncomfortable and overwhelmed.
— Eli Arduengo-Profeta describing abuse in Applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy for autistic children[25]

Some disability-related therapies have undergone criticism for being unnecessarily cruel, abusive, or even torturous. In particular, many autism therapies can physically or emotionally harm autistic people, such as training them to obey any order they are given, injecting them with lupron, or forcing them to drink bleach.[26][27][28][29][30]

In the US, it is legal to use electric shocks to punish children and adults for "misbehaving." This occurs at the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center. Despite protests of disability activists, the center remains open.

Special education is not always a safe place for disabled children, who may be subjected to physical restraint (such as being forcibly pinned to the floor) or seclusion (such as being locked in a dark closet for an indefinite length of time).[31][32] Children may be left with cuts and bruises in addition to emotional scars.[33][34] Sometimes, the police are called not to stop the abuse, but to arrest the children for "not listening" or not staying calm.[35] Disabled children depend upon the adults around them to treat them well, and sometimes fall victim to horrific abuses.


When a disabled person is killed, especially by one of their caregivers or loved ones, the media may sympathize with the murderer, calling it a "mercy killing" or "final act of love."[36][37] Stories center the experience of the (attempted) murderers, such as when Kelli Stapleton was able to broadcast her story on Dr. Phil after trying to kill her autistic daughter Issy.[38]

Media coverage that blames people with disabilities for their murder, shockingly, may have negative effects.[39][40][41]

Unsurprisingly, it's not uncommon for anti-vaxxers, who act like having a dead child is preferable to having an autistic child, to express sympathy for murderers of autistic children. In fact, some murderers have expressed anti-vaccination beliefs.[42][43]

See also[edit]


  1. Unwanted Sterilization and Eugenics Programs in the United States
  4. Ten Quick Ways to Analyze Children's Books for Ableism
  8. Why The "Diagnose Trump" Hashtag Hurts People With Mental Illness
  9. An Open Letter to Congresswoman Karen Bass on #DiagnoseTrump
  10. Livingston 2000. When Architecture Disables: Teaching Undergraduates to Perceive Ableism in the Built Environment
  11. Can employers actually pay disabled Americans below the minimum wage?
  12. A loophole in federal law allows companies to pay disabled workers $1 an hour
  14. Snopes: Has Iceland Eliminated Down Syndrome Through Abortion?
  15. Euthanasia a choice for people with disability? It's a threat to our lives, Craig Wallace, The Guardian, 27 Sept 2017
  16. Washington State May Make It Easier to Sterilize People With Disabilities
  17. Domestic Violence & People with Disabilities
  18. Abuse and Exploitation of People with Developmental Disabilities
  19. Abuse of Children with Intellectual Disability
  20. Homelessness among ill and disabled people rises 53% in a year, figures show
  21. How One Mother's Battle Is Changing Police Training On Disabilities
  22. US prisons hold more than 550,000 people with intellectual disabilities – they face exploitation, harsh treatment
  23. Deaf patients say Queensland hospitals are failing to provide adequate Auslan services at critical times
  24. Healthcare Language Barriers Affect Deaf People, Too.
  25. Quora: Is every kind of ABA therapy abusive?
  26. ABA and the Thorny Problem of Control and Consent
  27. The Shocking Controversy of ABA Therapy
  28. Is chelation therapy an effective autism treatment?
  29. Parents Are Making Their Children Drink Bleach to "Cure" Them of Autism
  30. Do Not Make Your Kids Drink Bleach Chemicals To Treat Autism
  31. Abuse, Restraints and Seclusion in School
  32. Teacher's awful mistreatment of special needs child
  33. UPDATE: Mom says CCSD special education teacher abused her 4-year-old
  34. 25 Investigates: Parents kept in the dark after teacher cited for abusing two boys
  35. When Teachers Abuse Disabled Children
  36. How Murder Victims With Disabilities Get Blamed For Their Own Deaths
  37. Is Sharyl Attkisson feeling the heat over her irresponsible reporting of the Alex Spourdalakis case?
  38. The Mommy Blogger Who Tried to Kill Her Autistic Daughter Talks to Dr. Phil
  39. Homicides of people with developmental disabilities; An analysis of news stories (page 19)
  40. 2018 Anti-Filicide Toolkit
  41. There’s Something Wrong with the Way We Talk About Parents Who Murder Their Autistic Kids
  42. Polly Tommey won’t judge parents who murder their disabled children. That’s part of the problem
  43. Karen McCarron asks for new trial, claims she believed Katie would be resurrected without autism