Ableism: The Assumptions People Make About Disability

Ableism: the assumptions people make about disability - How does ableism relate to mental illness stigma?

I’ve seen ableism being mentioned on Twitter a number of times lately. Aside from the obvious meaning, I wasn’t familiar with it in a mental health context. This post will explore what ableism means for people with psychiatric disabilities.

Defining ableism

An article on the Center for Disability Rights website describes ableism this way:

“Ableism is a set of beliefs or practices that devalue and discriminate against people with physical, intellectual, or psychiatric disabilities and often rests on the assumption that disabled people need to be ‘fixed’ in one form or the other. Ableism is intertwined in our culture, due to many limiting beliefs about what disability does or does not mean, how able-bodied people learn to treat people with disabilities and how we are often not included at the table for key decisions.”

That desire to fix people may be grounded in good intentions, but even the best intentions won’t negate the negative impact on the person living with the disability.

A report by the Law Commission of Ontario described ableism as:

“… a belief system, analogous to racism, sexism, or ageism, that sees persons with disabilities as being less worthy of respect and consideration, less able to contribute and participate, and of less inherent value than others.”

The report also points out that ableism can be conscious or unconscious, and may show up in different ways depending on the type of disability in question. It gives the example of zoning bylaws that keep supported mental health housing out of certain neighbourhoods; this was something I discussed in previous posts on NIMBYism in relation to mental health housing and low-barrier housing.

In the past, the idea that those with disabilities were not valuable was taken to extremes with the eugenics movement. Large numbers of people with mental illness were sterilized, and the Nazis kicked it up at a few notches by murdering people who were mentally ill or disabled.


Stereotypes play an important role in ableism, and reinforce prejudiced attitudes and discriminatory behaviours. One stereotype is the disabled person as helpless victim. The disability is seen as dominating the person’s life and identity, and it’s assumed that they wish for their disability to be cured. Difficulties around access are attributed to personal characteristics rather than legitimate accessibility limitations in the community.

When it comes to mental illness disabilities, there are plenty of stereotypes that can come into play. In an article on, the author identified several ableist things she hates hearing, including “you seem normal” and “everyone experiences that.” The latter in particular resonated with me, as it’s such a common thing people say with apparently good intentions, yet it’s so utterly dismissive of the experience of disability.

Ableism and stigma

So is ableism just another way of saying stigma? They’re similar and have significant overlap, but not exactly the same. Stigma devalues people because they are different in a certain way, whereas ableism focuses on ability and lack thereof. Ableism also covers a broader umbrella of people, while mental illness stigma tends to be considered as a distinct entity.

In terms of what I have faced, I would say that stigma seems like a better descriptor than ableism. Assumptions have been made about me because I have that black mark of having a mental illness, and whether or not I am able to do things has played a much smaller role. I think what matters far more than semantics is recognizing that people do discriminate, and that discrimination may be dressed up in good intentions. And the fact that it’s widespread doesn’t make it okay. It’s just a sign that we need to keep talking.

Is ableism something that you’ve experienced?


Book cover: A Brief History of Stigma by Ashley L. Peterson

My latest book, A Brief History of Stigma, looks at the nature of stigma, the contexts in which it occurs, and how to challenge it most effectively.

You can find it on Amazon and Google Play.

There’s more on stigma on Mental Health @ Home’s Stop the Stigma page.

31 thoughts on “Ableism: The Assumptions People Make About Disability”

  1. I feel a little uncomfortable with the Law Commission of Ontario definition. I agree people with disabilities are worthy of respect and consideration and have inherent value equal to non-disabled people. And I agree disabled people should be encouraged to contribute and participate. But I feel that I want it to be known that I am often less able to contribute and participate in things. A lot of my self-criticism and fear of stigma is in fact based on this idea that I see myself and that others see me as someone who should contribute as if I was not depressed, socially anxious and autistic, where in reality those things impair my ability to contribute and participate in major ways. I would actually feel more comfortable if more people recognised my limitations.

    1. I definitely agree with you Luftmentsch. I don’t want to be treated like I’m stupid, but I also don’t want to have unrealistic expectations put upon me that will only lead to feelings of failure and eventual meltdown.

  2. Oh I guess so – thank you for explaining this concept to me. I’ve seen it around but didn’t understand what it really ment. I’ve heard somethings like
    – when I look at you, I wouldn’t say (I felt horrible that time)
    – do you really want to be depressed? (the want was the kicker)
    – why can’t you help yourself, you worked in the mental health field (well, there is no starting this discussion)
    – you’re too young to be sitting at home
    and maybe those are stupid examples but sometimes it’s difficult to un-hear them. Good intentions or not, it can hurt.

      1. I think it would be better when the good intentions would just be that, without the judgement or unsolicited advice!
        There is nothing wrong (in my mind) with saying: I can listen to you or I hope you’ll find coping mechanisms that work for you or I hope you’ll find you way in the difficulties that you’re experiencing or I hope that you have some support…. I could think of more things to say than what not to say (in my opinion that is)

  3. Thank you for bringing attention to a huge problem (ableism) I’ve experienced q lot of it, mostly from family oe medical services that are supposed to help.

  4. Great post. I’ve thought about the term stigma but not much about ableism. But this section completely resonates: ““you seem normal” and “everyone experiences that.”  The latter in particular resonated with me, as it’s such a common thing people say with apparently good intentions, yet it’s so utterly dismissive of the experience of disability.”

    But I have sort of been chewing on the idea that some mental health disorders are more stigmatized/ableism-susceptible than others.

    Obviously I can only speak for myself, but social anxiety is my main struggle, and it’s such a commonly used term that I think there’s less stigma toward it, but also still a lot of ableism (I now realize) — because it seems like no big deal since everyone has anxiety.

    1. I agree, certain illnesses are referred to as so commonplace they’re almost meaningless, are that can do as much damage as the more stigmatized size of things.

  5. I find it irritating when people say “I can’t do *insert thing here* because of my bpd”. I’ve heard people say that people with bpd are incapable of loving and keeping a partner. It’s ridiculous, you can say that about anyone. It’s not just people with mental illness. I’ve been with my husband 10 years. Married for 8 and I’ve never cheated. Ugh….

  6. I appreciate this topic greatly and I understand that people with disabilities have inherent values and should be allowed to contribute to society. I have a question though: at what point can they be assisted or is it okay to attempt to offer assistance.

  7. I appreciate this post greatly! Its very important to look at ableism and discuss it. I deal with quite a lot of it, from the looks I get in public to general treatment from strangers (like I’m an infant). 🙂

    1. There definitely needs to be more awareness of how these kinds of assumptions can do so much harm. It’s really not that hard to respectfully ask someone rather than act based on assumptions.

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