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Intro to Ableism: What Disability Activists Want You To Know

Ableism is defined as discrimination against people with disabilities in favor of “able-bodied” people. Its implications are widespread throughout the world and in every community. Disabled people often face systemic discrimination in the workplace, in schools, and with regard to marriage equality. In addition, disabled adults often face “coddling” and other patronizing behavior from others, even complete strangers.

Shaw, Gabbi. People with disabilities are sharing their uncomfortable experiences with able-bodied people on Twitter
Shaw, Gabbi. People with disabilities are sharing their uncomfortable experiences with able-bodied people on Twitter. 16 Mar 2019,

On top of systemic oppression, disabled people also encounter social discrimination, often in the form of what some disabled activists call “Inspiration Porn.” This term describes a certain fascination by able-bodied people with disabled peoples’ adversities, a kind of mythologizing that overlooks their individualism, often accompanied by unwanted attention and condescension. Activist Imani Barbarin often speaks on this phenomenon, most recently in this article from NPR.

Like activists on other social issues, disability activists want to educate. They share their individual stories and other information in order to help people understand the breadth and depth of experience within the disabled community, rather than to simply serve as inspiration for “abled” people. Below I have assembled some resources for learning about ableism and how to recognize it in everyday life. (Links lead to an item’s IUCAT record.)

Sexuality and Disability (2010)

This interview with disabled activist and nurse Sonya Perduta-Fulginiti dives into how individuals, and the media, often overlook the possibility of a disabled person having a romantic and/or sexual life. This is an important subject in humanizing disabled people’s life experience for others, especially since disabled people are rarely represented as romantic interests in popular media.

Screenshot. "Sexuality and Disability"
Screenshot. “Sexuality and Disability.” Alexander Street Press. 2010,

Shameless: The Art of Disability (2007)

This documentary follows five disabled artists and explores how their disabilities impact their artistic identities and work. They discuss and laugh about old stereotypes and clichés in the media throughout the film. Each of them speak of the importance of seeing disabled people represented without their disability fully overshadowing their achievements and reputations.

Disabilities in the Workplace: Working Out (1993)

This excerpt is part of a series about disabled people in the workforce. This clip in particular follows a few different people sharing their personal experiences at work, from the hiring process to the day-to-day work itself. It offers first-person perspective on the patronizing comments and social hurdles that disabled people must face when starting new positions.

Moving On with Disabilities (contains numerous episodes, 2001)

Narrated by disabled journalist Joanne Smith, this episode follows disabled student athletes at two different universities and the discrimination they faced through established university policy. It ends with a thoughtful discussion on the importance of positive representation of disabled peoples’ experiences in popular media.

Learning from disabled activists is crucial in the quest to eliminate bias and negative or misleading stereotypes. There are many clichés that may ring familiar to most of us, from people faking disabilities to the disabled being chronically helpless. These widespread assumptions, often internalized due to inaccurate or superficial media portrayals, can be difficult to recognize and eliminate. However, if people with disabilities are to be recognized for the valuable perspectives and contributions they bring as members of the broader community, identification of assumptions and “unlearning” disability bias is a necessary first step. As an “abled” person, I learned a lot from these titles (available through Media Services) and from the work of disabled activist Imani Barbarin. I hope you find them helpful as well. Happy unlearning! LA

Leah Ashebir is a recent graduate of Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business. She has been a Media Services staff member for several years, and this is her final blog post for the department. We at Media Services thank her for her service and wish her luck in her future endeavors!

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