How Mainstream Feminism Continues to Perpetuate Ableism (And How We Can Change That)

A smiling person signing "I love you." Source: Mobility International USA

A smiling person signing “I love you.” Source: Mobility International USA

(Content Warning: Ableist slurs)

Disabled folks make up the largest “minority” group that includes the most diversity, and anyone can experience or acquire a disability at any point in their life.

And yet even in feminist and social justice spaces, ableism persists.

We continue to use ableist metaphors and language in these spaces. Often, we use these phrases as ways to describe our thoughts, but ultimately we continue to equate disability as a Bad Thing and use ableist language for its negative connotation.

And we wonder why disabled people often feel that mainstream feminism leaves both disabled people and disability issues out of the conversation entirely.

When disabled people are continually overlooked as a marginalized identity, it makes the consequences of our oppression even worse.

So until disabilities are no longer seen as an inherently Bad Thing (which is a whole other conversation), we need to be very intentional about not using ableist language – especially when talking about social justice.

As feminists, our conversations have to change.

Common Ableist Phrases Found Within Feminist Discourse (And What to Say Instead)

Despite knowing that ableist language matters, much of the phrasing used in feminist discourse is, believe it or not, ableist. Here are a few examples!

1. ‘They’re Blind to Their Privilege’

Not everyone is able to recognize their privilege. And when people can’t seem to recognize it, people often say they’re “blind” to it.

In this phrase, “blind” is equated with “ignorant.” That’s not what being blind means.

Blindness is a physical condition of the eyes — it’s not a way to describe someone who lacks critical understanding.

And to continue referring to blindness in this context only furthers the stigma and misconceptions that surround the condition and the people with it.

Instead, say “They don’t recognize their privilege.”

2. ‘Falls on Deaf Ears’

This phrase is an expression for people who refuse to try to understand something we might be explaining. It refers to people who willingly choose to ignore our perspective.

This associates deafness with unwillingness or inability to understand. Those who are d/Deaf or hard of hearing don’t need to hear to understand!

Instead, say “They refuse to understand” or “They didn’t realize.”

3. ‘Racists (Homophobes, Misogynists, Etc.) Are Emotionally Crippled’

“Crippled” is commonly used to describe the “brokenness” of something. Unfortunately, “crippled” has also been used as a hurtful slur against disabled people — it describes them as broken.

And disabled people are not broken.

Some disability activists are choosing to reclaim the words “crip” and “gimp.” But non-disabled feminists cannot reclaim a slur that has not been used against them.

Instead, say “Racists are assholes” or “Racists are unable to connect with their humanity and emotions.”

4. ‘The World Has Gone Autistic’

This phrase is trying to describe how detached or even selfish our society can be — which only serves to validate the outrageous stigma against autistic people.

Due in part to awful organizations like Autism Speaks, us allistic individuals might believe that autism causes an inability to communicate, connect, and empathize – but that’s just not true.

Autism, while it varies in complexity, is a diversion from neurotypicality. People on the spectrum are still human, despite what others might be saying.

Instead, say “The world has become disconnected”.

5. Other Subtle Ableist Phrasing

While slurs are easier to recognize in our phrases, we also use language that is ableist without the negative connotation.

Even words that don’t seem hurtful are used specifically to describe and set apart certain disabilities — for example, “special” is still used to other people with intellectual disabilities.

We also tend to erase disabled identities through our language.

Phrases like “Can’t you see what I mean,” “Do you hear what I’m saying,” or even “standing in solidarity” are still exclusive. These phrases assume that everyone can actually see, hear, or stand. This constructs a norm that a lot of us can’t perform in.

How We Dehumanize Disabled People

One of the most popular ways that temporarily non-disabled allies try to show their support of disabled people is through what’s known as “people first language.”

They promise not to “put the disability before the person” and therefore choose to say “people with disabilities” instead of “disabled people.”

And while the intent is good, the “people first language” movement relies on the fact that disabled people are consistently not seen as human.

While it’s up to the individual to decide whether or not they identify with their disability, disabled people often face the reality that non-disabled people only identify them as their disability. For example, to some people, I’m simply known as “the wheelchair girl.”

The people first language movement and statements like “I don’t see you as disabled” are meant to be positive, but they just reinforce the mainstream belief that disability is dehumanizing.

And when people with disabilities are not recognized as individual human beings, we are made into props. We are seen as “less than” and therefore deserving of only pity or charity.

On the other hand, if we are not being pitied, then we are being praised. We are seen as extraordinary and inspirational, simply because we’ve managed to live while disabled.

The late disability rights activist and comedian Stella Young calls this common phenomenon inspiration porn.

Inspiration porn is the name given to any propaganda meant to “inspire” temporarily non-disabled people with examples of individuals with disabilities. Inspiration porn is for the viewer’s pleasure and education.

Inspiration porn reminds temporarily non-disabled people that their lives “can’t be that bad.” As if living with a disability is the worst thing that can happen to a person.

This puts an expectation on people with disabilities to serve as educational props for temporarily non-disabled people. It dehumanizes any person with a disability, as if our only purpose is to validate others.

Entering feminist or social justice spaces as the only — or even the first — disabled person is common for me and many other disabled activists. And this common dehumanizing rhetoric isn’t exactly welcoming.

All it does is make it easy to tokenize or ignore people with disabilities.

Intersectionality Must Include Disability

If we really want equity for all, we have to be intersectional and understand how our own biases and our own privileges — especially when unchecked and ignored — will stop us from achieving our ultimate goal as feminists.

For example, reproductive rights are a concern for most feminists. But disabled people continue to face additional challenges that go ignored – like inaccessible clinics and higher risks and costs of abortions.

When we advocate for reproductive rights, but ignore how that struggle intersects with disability, we fail to achieve our goal as intersectional feminists.

And we can’t continue to ignore disability rights when the results of the continued injustices are devastating. People with disabilities experience higher rates of hate-crimes, violence, and sexual assaults.

Not only do we have to consider disability rights in our feminist movements, we also need to recognize the intersection of race, sexuality, class, and so on for those who are also disabled.

For example, as a white woman, I learned to appreciate mainstream feminism for working to close the wage gap so that I can get paid the same amount as my male counterparts. However, what mainstream feminism doesn’t include is the fact that women of color continue to make even less than me.

Additionally, the substantial pay gap for disabled employees or the fact that disabled people are half as likely to be employed goes completely unaddressed.

People of color experience higher rates of disability. Sexuality, gender identity, and gender expression are often completely disregarded for disabled folks, as other people can’t often “see past the disability.”

People with mental health diagnoses or disabilities are ten times more likely to be incarcerated than treated in a hospital.

Feminism can’t allow these intersectional issues to be after-thoughts or sidebars along the mainstream’s dialogue.

Accessibility or Bust

One way to ensure that we aren’t ignoring disability rights is to invite disability activists in the conversation and make sure we’re providing accessibility while doing so.

There are many different types of disabilities. Even if we have the same disability, it doesn’t mean that we use the same accommodations.

We can start making our spaces more inclusive and accessible by simply asking what accommodations we need to provide by those who are participating.

However, we can’t wait for someone with a disability to show up to make these changes. Some things we can start to do as allies without being asked or told, like ensuring a universally designed accessible space.

And I mean actually accessible. And yes — that one stair does count.

Even online there are ways to be readily accessible. When posting a video, include closed captioning and a transcript. When posting pictures, include a written description.

Making these accommodations isn’t making exceptions or giving “special treatment” — it’s simply providing equal opportunities for disabled people in our feminist efforts.

And equitable accommodations ensure that equal opportunity! For example, providing everyone with directions to your meeting space ahead of time is great, but if they don’t include an accessible route, they’re no use to me.

I am not ashamed of my invisible disability, but needing certain accommodations and “asking for help” can be uncomfortable. That’s why it’s important to be proactive in being an accessible ally.

How are we continuing to cultivate a safe space for disabled people to feel comfortable and included?


Most of us support people with disabilities, but don’t consider how we perpetuate the marginalization of disabled people with our own words.

We challenge ourselves and our friends to raise millions of dollars for research efforts, yet we don’t address the lack of accessibility in our own communities.

It’s time to get creative. We need to do more than just dump buckets of ice water on our heads!

We need to do more than just recognizing humanity and raising awareness. We need to start raising hell — and we can start by challenging ourselves to do better!

Disabled people deserve recognition and equity. All of us — even you! — can start making those changes through our language and our everyday conversations.

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Sara Whitestone is a third year student at the University of Cincinnati studying Biology with a minor in Women’s Studies. As a disabled feminist, Sara proudly advocates for accessibility issues and other students with disabilities at UC. She is founder and President of Sara Spins, a foundation dedicated to raising funds and awareness for students with disabilities. Sara’s an avid foodie and amateur yogi with goals of healing her chronic illness holistically. When she’s not making a complete mess of her kitchen or trying to keep up with her personal health blog, she enjoys taking naps on campus, attempting to be punny on Twitter @doubleOsara and searching for new street art downtown.