Talila “TL” Lewis provides the following working definition of ableism:
A system that places value on people’s bodies and minds based on societally constructed ideas of normalcy, intelligence and excellence. These constructed ideas of normalcy, intelligence and excellence are deeply rooted in anti-Blackness, eugenics and capitalism. This form of systemic oppression leads to people and society determining who is valuable and worthy based on people’s appearance and/or their ability to satisfactorily produce, excel and ‘behave.’ You do not have to be disabled to experience ableism.
Practicing inclusivity in writing means intentionally looking at constructed ideas of normalcy, intelligence, and excellence and actively questioning these ideas as we write and in our writing. When we do not question our assumptions, it is likely that ableist ideas and language will appear in our writing because these ideas circulate in our societies all the time.
Steps for writing about ableism, disability, mental health, and neurodiversity
Think critically about relevance
Often an individual person’s disability, mental health, or neurodiverse status is mentioned in writing where it is not, in fact, relevant to the matter being discussed. The inclusion of such information where it is not pertinent serves to other the person and maintains ableist ideas of normalcy. However, writers are sometimes nervous about mentioning disability, mental health, and/or neurodivergence. Avoiding these topics or using euphemistic language is harmful, can entrench the idea that these topics are taboo, and can result in an erasure – not only of the subject matter, but also of people. In this way, the social stigma associated with disability, mental health issues, and neurodivergence is reinforced.
Frame ideas carefully
A common ableist pitfall in writing about disability, mental health, and neurodivergence is to frame these aspects of the human experience as deficits or defects. The deficit framework perpetuates the stereotype that there is a “normal” way to be human, which does not include disability, mental health concerns, or neurodivergence. Below are some common words associated with the deficit framework:
- Abnormal, abnormality
- Defect (ex. “birth defect”)
- Suffers from
- Families affected by or touched by (ex. Disability, Autism)
- Confined to (ex. a bed, a wheelchair, home)
- Need to overcome
- Search for a cure
*When writing specifically about illnesses and/or chronic illnesses, this word is clearly appropriate. However, the term can also be misapplied to the context of disability, mental health, and neurodivergence. This can include discussing the need for a cure for disabilities or neurodivergence, which suggests that these ways of being human are not normal or even okay.
Respect experiences and identities
While some people may describe their experiences of disability, mental health concerns, or neurodivergence as a struggle, many others claim these aspects of their identities as valuable. Many people challenge the deficit framework by claiming their disabilities, their experiences of mental health, and/or their neurodivergence as parts of their cultural identities. Here are some examples:
- Disability gain -> a term used to counter narratives of loss (ex. hearing loss)
- Culturally Deaf -> “I identify as culturally Deaf”
- Blind community -> “I am a proud member of the blind community”
- Disability cultural centres -> “We are advocating for a disability cultural centre at the university to promote acceptance”
- Autistic culture and expression -> “Stimming is part of Autistic culture and expression”
Learn about the medical and social models of disability
In the medical model of disability, individuals are understood to be disabled because of their physical, mental, or sensory “impairments.” The individual and their experiences are seen as the problem. It is referred to as the medical model because it focuses on the individual’s medical issues and ways that these issues might be cured or removed. This way of thinking is in line with the deficit framework described above.
The social model of disability focuses on the social barriers that cause people to experience disability. In this model, it becomes clear that inflexible, prejudiced, and oppressive conditions are the problem, and that any given person might be disabled by encountering these conditions, which have not been set up for their needs.
This section was substantially informed by the Autistics United workshop materials for “All Brains Are Beautiful” and by Erin Human’s infographic Medical Model Vs. Social Model (2017).
Learn about person-first and identity-first language
Person-first writing focuses on the person before providing a label. Writing “disabled person” puts the label first. Person-first writing revises to “person with” or “person who has” a disability. Literally, it puts the word person first. Symbolically, many people find this more respectful, because it does not suggest that a person can be described or understood through a single identity label.
While there are benefits to person-first writing, many advocates and scholars from within disability, mental health, and neurodiverse communities argue for identity-first language. While person-first language aims to ensure that we do not define a person entirely by one aspect of their experience (for example, a disability), strict adherence to this approach can undermine an individual’s work to claim that aspect of their lived experience.
Identity-first writing requires writers to find out how a person self-identifies and to respect that self-identification. Many autistic activists, for example, choose to self-identify as autistic and not as “a person with autism.” Insisting on person-first language where an individual has expressed a different preference is not inclusive writing.
For more resources and examples: