Ableism and Related Terms You Need to Know


It's important to understand topics like ableism, microaggressions, unconscious bias, and stereotypes. Ignoring uncomfortable topics like these gives power for them to continue. Hence, we need to learn about them, understand them, talk about them, and know how to address them. Otherwise, change will not happen. Ableism is prejudice against disabled people. Microaggressions are statements, actions, or incidents that are taken as subtle or unintended discrimination against individuals from a marginalized group. Unconscious bias is like having a belief or favorite without even realizing it. . Stereotypes are oversimplified ideas or beliefs about a group of people.

It’s hard writing about topics like ableism, microaggressions, unconscious bias, and stereotypes. Ignoring uncomfortable topics gives power for them to continue. Hence, we need to learn about them, understand them, talk about them, and know how to address them. Otherwise, change will not happen.


Most people know what racism, sexism, and ageism are. They mean prejudice or bias against people from a specific group. Despite this, many aren’t familiar with ableism. Ableism is bias against people with disabilities. Like the other isms, it can be intentional or unintentional.

If someone assumes that a person with a disability cannot do something because of their disability, that’s ableism. If someone treats a disabled person differently because of their disability, that’s ableism. If someone makes fun of a disabled person, that’s ableism.

Disabled people deserve to be treated with respect like everyone else. We have thoughts and feelings. Here’s a powerful poem about ableism by Maria R. Palacios that gives many examples of ableism.

Here’s one of the best definitions of ableism I’ve encountered.

“Ableism looks like calling people ‘inspiring’ for navigating a system that is designed for exclusion, while doing nothing to hold the system accountable.” — Carson Tueller

Lateral Ableism

Lateral ableism is when a disabled person is biased against another disabled person. A disabled person can discriminate against or overlook another disabled person. It can be intentional or not.

In some cases, when a person who uses a wheelchair thinks of accessibility, they may focus on building accessibility. The same can apply the other way when a blind person thinks about accessibility, they may focus on digital accessibility.

Someone may show lateral ableism by saying, “Well, I do fine without meds. What do you need meds for?” The same applies the other way around. “You don’t use meds, so how can you take advantage of a program for autistics?”

My Experiences with Lateral Ableism

I’ve encountered lateral ableism in that I don’t count as deaf. Without lipreading, my hearing device can’t help me listen. I can’t make a phone call without captions.

Lipreading is more like lip guessing. I miss a lot. I’m excluded from conversations. I’m not hearing. I’m not a signer. I’ve been a profoundly deaf person since birth. I count as a deaf person.

In another scenario, a disabled person would comment on my posts. Every time they did, it upset me. I should’ve blocked them long ago. Every single interaction with this person was negative. Some targeted me.

The last straw was them accusing me of writing a post like theirs. First, I didn’t follow them or read their posts. Second, I had written the post months ago and emailed it to a friend.

Third, it was unique as it referred to a person. Fourth, I had such a terrible experience with another disabled person years ago that I go out of my way to overdo it on giving credit.

Several trusted friends told me this person may be jealous of my work. I can’t imagine anyone being jealous of me. I work hard every day to land new gigs and work.

Reflecting on the person’s comments and messages, my friends might’ve been right. This was a case of lateral ableism and crab mentality. Check out this powerful perspective in Carly Findlay’s article about being a disability activist.

Types of Lateral Ableism

Crab mentality is an attitude of “If I can’t have it, neither can you.” Picture crabs crawling up a pot trying to escape. The other crabs pull them down. They don’t want them to experience freedom. They want them to stay in the pot with them. Crab mentality comes from feelings of jealousy, envy, resentment, and competitiveness.

Lateral ableism is more painful than ableism from non-disabled people. That’s because you’d think your own would understand better and not treat you that way.

Another form of lateral ableism is hierarchies. “Crip Camp” mentioned it. Short version. It becomes a competition. “I’m more disabled than you are.” Or someone is selected because they pass as “not disabled or less disabled.” Or “my advocacy is more important than yours.”

They may say that a blind person can’t represent us because they have some sight. That person who uses a wheelchair can’t represent us because they can sometimes stand and walk. That deaf person can’t represent us because they don’t use sign language. (True story.)

Many disabled folks have a focus when it comes to advocacy. This is true within the same disability category. Disabilities are a spectrum. We all have our priorities. Some disabled people feel like they must compete with others in the same category.

Benevolent Ableism

Are you a helper like me? Do you hold the door open for others? Do you pick up something someone dropped? We don’t ask if we can hold the door open or pick up the item for them. We just do it. People often appreciate this.

However, we need to be careful when helping disabled people. In this case, ask before you help. Did you know there’s a term for helping disabled people without asking? It’s called benevolent ableism.

Maybe someone who uses a wheelchair is putting on a coat. Someone swoops in and thinks they are saving the day by helping them put on their coat. What’s wrong with this picture? They didn’t ask before helping.

How about this one? They spot someone with a white cane. “May I help?” They proceed to take the person’s arm.

What’s wrong with this picture? This time they asked, but they did not wait for a yes. If the person says no, then leave them be. If the person says yes, then ask “How can I help?” Let them take the lead.

When they don’t ask or wait for a response, their helping sends a message that disabled people can’t do things for ourselves.

Sometimes helpers assume. Conference organizers said they’d provide me with an American sign language (ASL) interpreter. Thankfully, they emailed first so I could educate them that not all people born deaf use ASL. They meant well.

You may think this is ridiculous. People just want to help. Here’s how I explain it. How would you like it if someone touched you without your permission? Helping a disabled person without asking and receiving a positive response is like that.

First, ask if you can help. Second, wait for a response.

  • Yes: Ask, “How can I help?”
  • No: For goodness sakes, please move on. Don’t stick around and spy on us to see if we change our minds. This happens! Good golly!

Then there are microaggressions and unconscious bias.

Unconscious Bias, Stereotypes, and Microaggressions

I have a hard time understanding and explaining unconscious bias, stereotypes, and microaggressions. They are connected, but I couldn’t wrap my brain around how. This is where artificial intelligence (AI) proves useful. It’s an easy way to plain language-ify things.

Unconscious bias

Imagine you have a favorite color, let’s say red. Unconscious bias is like having a belief or favorite without even realizing it. It’s when your brain makes quick decisions about people or things without you thinking about it. So, if you always choose red without thinking, it’s like having a bias for red.

This unconscious bias could lead to microaggressions. Unconscious bias can be influenced by stereotypes, but it’s more about the unconscious processes that affect a person’s perceptions and behaviors. Speaking of stereotypes.


While like unconscious bias, stereotypes have some differences. Stereotypes are oversimplified ideas or beliefs about a group of people. These ideas tend to be based on characteristics, such as disability.

Stereotypes can be positive or negative. In both cases, they’re harmful because they overlook the diversity within the group. I always say disabilities are a spectrum including deafness. When you’ve met one deaf person, then you’ve met one deaf person.

People may assume all deaf people are like the one deaf person they’ve met. Maybe that deaf person uses sign language. This can lead to the person to have a stereotype of assuming all deaf people use sign language.

Here are common stereotypes about deaf people:

  • Deaf people read lips.
  • Deaf people can’t speak.
  • Deaf people use sign language.
  • Deaf people are less intelligent.
  • Deaf people wear hearing devices.

These stereotypes are not accurate representations of deaf people. Some speak, some don’t, some have a hearing device, some don’t, the possibilities are endless. Disabled people are diverse individuals with unique talents, abilities, and perspectives.

In Thinking, Fast and Slow (affiliate link), Daniel Kahneman calls stereotypical thinking System 1. This is the brain’s automatic, quick response mode. If we tell someone to draw an apple quickly. Often, they’ll draw a red one.

Difference between fast and slow thinking. “Difference between Daniel Kahneman’s fast and slow thinking. System 1: Fast thinking. Red crayons are only for apples.” Red apple. “System 2: Slow thinking. Red crayons are for many things. Apples can be other colors.” A variety of icons in red and apples in blue, orange, green, and purple.

What if we give them more time and encourage them to think more logically and broadly? Draw a variety of apples. Now, they may draw different sizes and add yellow and green ones. This is slow thinking known as System 2.

Kahneman says understanding these two systems helps us be intentional with how we think and make decisions.

For example, a deaf person says they need accessibility. Someone may instantly think of these:

  • ASL interpreter
  • Closed captions
  • Too expensive

There are other things besides ASL and captions that are helpful to deaf folks like me. According to AskJan, half of accommodations cost nothing while the rest cost up to $300.

Instead of quick thinking, clear your mind of assumptions. It’s hard, I know. I still mess up because my brain responds fast without thinking.


The word microaggression is misleading. “Aggression” gives the impression there’s anger or a negative attitude behind it. Most of the time, that’s not the case.

Microaggressions scare me. Here’s why. I have a chart of racial microaggressions. “You are so articulate” was on it.

This is something I say to people who deserve the compliment. I say this about my daughter, who is white. I say this to anyone with a vocabulary like hers. Now, must I avoid saying it to someone who isn’t white because they may take it as a microaggression?

Now I’m afraid to compliment people from marginalized groups. The last thing I want is for them to think it’s a microaggression and feel uncomfortable.

Microaggressions are statements, actions, or incidents that are taken as subtle or unintended discrimination against individuals from a marginalized group. They’re little comments or actions that can happen because of quick decisions or biases. It’s like if someone says, “You look smarter with those glasses!”

It may come from unconscious bias, which is believing people without glasses aren’t smart. The microaggression can make the person wearing glasses feel uncomfortable. It’s likely the person saying it didn’t intend to be mean on purpose.

Here’s a common comment I get: “You speak so well.” Obviously, they’re not saying “for a deaf person.” Why is this a problem and not a compliment? It contributes to the stereotype that deaf people don’t speak well.

When someone reinforces the stereotype, it increases the chances people will start to believe it for everyone who is deaf.

Here are common disability microaggressions.

  • I can’t believe you’re married, have kids, drive, etc.
  • You don’t look [insert disability] or sick.
  • Everyone has a disability.
  • You’re too young to have it.
  • Talks to companions as if the disabled person is not there.
  • I’ll pray for you.
  • I know you can do it!
  • Is that person your caregiver?
  • You’re so brave. You’re so inspiring. (This is often inspiration porn.)
  • Have you tried … changing your diet? Religion? Positivity? (Skip the advice unless requested.)
  • Uses euphemisms: handicapable, different ability, special needs. (Disability and disabled are not bad words.)

Unconscious bias is the quick choices our brains make. Stereotypes are beliefs about an entire group. Microaggressions are the little things that can come out because of those biases.

It takes time to change. The key is to be aware of them and remember that the human brain is hard to change. Be open to educating, learning, and doing better. Think progress over perfection.

Differences: Ableism, Microaggressions, Unconscious Bias, and Stereotypes

How are these terms different from each other? Let’s bring them together with one example.

Ableism: Someone thinks disabled people can’t play sports because they’re disabled. In doing so, they exclude disabled people from sports and don’t provide accessibility and accommodations.

Microaggressions: Someone says, “Wow, you’re good at the sport, even though you’re disabled!” They’re not trying to be mean, but it can make the person feel uncomfortable.

Unconscious bias: Kids are choosing teams to play a sport. Though the disabled kid is good at the sport, the kids pick the disabled kid last. They have an unconscious belief that disabled people can’t play sports or play as well as others.

Stereotypes: They think disabled people can’t play sports. This is a fixed and oversimplified belief that disabled people can’t do sports because of their disabilities. It ignores the diversity of the disability community.

In short, unconscious bias is making quick — and often not accurate — judgments about people without realizing it. Ableism is treating people with disabilities unfairly, thinking they can’t do things. Microaggressions are small comments (that can sound like a compliment) based on a person’s disability that might accidentally hurt someone’s feelings.

Ableism is a bigger idea. Microaggressions are like little moments that can happen because of those bigger ideas. Unconscious bias and stereotypes contribute to the systemic issues of ableism. They reveal themselves through society’s attitudes, policies, and practices that discriminate against disabled people.

How to Prevent Ableism, Microaggressions, Stereotypes, and Unconscious Bias

As a disabled person with other marginalized traits, I choose to be kind and to educate, not berate. Flame, blame, and shame don’t lead to change. They don’t compel others to want to learn and make an effort. This is especially true with disability language.

It’s important to understand and recognize these terms and to challenge them when they happen. We can all help create a more inclusive world for everyone.

How can we overcome these biases buried deep in our minds? Here are some things you can do to help:

  • Educate yourself about disability.
  • Speak up.
  • Avoid and challenge assumptions.
  • Ask questions.
  • Be conscious of your own privilege.
  • Consider multiple possibilities.
  • Check yourself.
  • Review policies.
  • Use multiple credible resources.
  • Get to know people from marginalized groups.
  • Be willing to learn and adapt.
  • Support organizations that advocate for disabilities.
  • Know your emotions.

It helps to accept we might make mistakes and others make mistakes. We can’t do better if no one educates us. Don’t automatically assume bad intentions. Again, it’s not always intentional. Know that allies can be misinformed.

We all face different barriers in life. Disabled people are the largest minority group in the world. Imagine what we could achieve if we worked together.

This sounds like sunshine and rainbows. I know it’s not. I hope this opens the door to civil conversations and to be more inclusive of everyone. By being aware and taking these actions, you can help make the world a more accessible and inclusive place for everyone.

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