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Ableism is the privileging of ability and results in the oppression of disabled people based upon real or perceived impairments. It “others" disabilities, chronic illnesses, and neurological or mental illness. Campbell (2009) defines ableism as “a network of beliefs, processes and practices that produces a particular kind of self and body (the corporeal standard) that is projected as perfect and species-typical, and therefore essential and fully human. Disability then is cast as a diminished state of being human” (p. 5).

Ableism has deep roots in capitalism in determining whose lives are valued based on the forms of labour they are able to contribute or produce. Capitalist logics center meritocracy, individualism, self-reliance, and competition, and establish hierarchies based on perceived economic productivity. Disability justice activist, Mia Mingus, writes, "Ableism is connected to all of our struggles because it undergirds notions of whose bodies are considered valuable, desirable and disposable” (2011, Finding home, para. 4). Ableist logics mirror market logics in privileging certain forms of autonomy, self-sufficiency, and independence, which “ties individual and national progress to self-determination and, by virtue of this, associates happiness with self-reliance” (Goodley, 2018, p. 6).

Ableism has bolstered both historic and current eugenic practices. Historically, the eugenics movement linked disability and defiant behaviour to defective biology (Parekh, 2014). Dr. Helen MacMurchy was a central figure to the eugenics movement in Ontario and Canada, testing, identifying, and classifying people based on perceived intellectual abilities, segregating those outside the “norm” from mainstream society, and ultimately campaigning for genetic cleansing (Parekh, 2014). Today, disability activists point to pre-natal genetic screening for particular disorders as well as the ongoing struggle for reproductive rights and rights to life saving medical intervention for disabled people as forms of ongoing eugenic practices.

Ableism positions disability outside a predefined "norm", and as such, ableism has political, economic, social, physical, and psychic consequences. As a social construct, disability results from the disabling factors people with impairments face. For instance, a person may have an impairment which may impede their sight or mobility, but they are disabled by the attitudinal or environmental barriers that limit their participation (e.g., expectations and assumptions around capacity or access to academic opportunities in school, when seeking employment, when attending social events, when engaging in civic activities, etc.). As Annamma, Connor & Ferri (2013) share:

Although it is perhaps easier to conceptualize dis/abilities that are ‘clinically determined’ (i.e., based on professional judgment) as subjective, all dis/ability categories, whether physical, cognitive, or sensory, are also subjective. In other words, societal interpretations of and responses to specific differences from the normed body are what signify a dis/ability. (p. 2)

Ableist frameworks also seek to create monolithic experiences for all disabled individuals, promoting universal experiences and essentializing identities. Disability is often treated as a singular or isolated experience failing to capture the ways in which other systems of oppression, such as racism, classism, capitalism, and heteronormativity, reinforce, and are reinforced by ableism. Therefore, it is critical to consider disability through an intersectional lens.

We also acknowledge the tensions that have resulted in how we speak about those who live with disabilities. Some advocate for People-first language (a person living with disability), while many disability activists advocate for identity-first language (a disabled person). As Baglieri & Shapiro (2017) share, “To describe someone as a ‘person with a disability’ locates the disability as an attribute belonging to an individual. In contrast, placing ‘disabled’ before ‘person’ is read, grammatically, to indicate a position of being dis-abled, or made not-able” (p. 30). We offer that the choice in language should be at the discretion of each individual member of a disabled community to avoid perpetuating the myth of monolithic experiences for individuals within any community. In the UnLeading Project, we will follow many disability activists in using identity-first language.

In critiquing the logics of ableism, we consider the following:

1) “Normal” and “natural”: Ableism shapes what is understood as natural and normal constructing anything beyond this as deviant, criminal, unnatural, and absurd, requiring rehabilitation, intervention, and pity. Ableist language that associates disabilities with inferiority are also normalized in everyday relations. How often do you hear ableist and sanist terms like “lame”, “idiot”, “crazy” pop up in your discussions?

2) An idealized marker of successful citizenship: Disabled people are often seen as a burden, a problem, a drain on the system, as people who make no civic contribution. For example, Canada’s own immigration policies excludes disabled people and families with disabled children from attaining immigration/citizenship status.

3) Self-autonomy and self-reliance: Connected to the logics of capitalism and paternalism, individuals that are self-autonomous and self-reliant are deemed more worthy. While everyone is interdependent and relies on support from others, certain kinds of support for certain kinds of activities are devalued.

4) Forced separation: Those deemed “outside the norm” must be separated and excluded from “the norm”. Examples include the long, and continued history of institutionalization and incarceration of disabled people in segregated schools, psychiatric institutions, group homes and long-term care institutions. Important to note that ageism related to the systemic discrimination of elderly populations is largely a result of ableism and reduced human value aligned with notions of reduced economic value.

By disrupting ableist approaches to leadership, we consider several questions:

· How might leadership uphold the belief that all bodies are both unique and essential? That impairment is natural to the human experience?

· How do notions of disposability, brokenness, and undesirability construct students, families, and educators, and how does leadership reinforce these orientations?

· How might leadership center care and caretaking of one another instead of the managing, policing, surveillance, and incarceration that dispose of people?

· How might leadership model disruption of deficit narratives and acknowledgment of the gifts that individuals bring to communities?

· How might leaders encourage understanding about how society limits access and embodiment of difference?


Annamma, S.A., Connor, D. & Ferri, B. (2013) Dis/ability critical race studies (DisCrit): theorizing at the intersections of race and dis/ability. Race Ethnicity and Education, 16(1), 1-31.

Baglieri, S., Shapiro, A. (2012). Perspectives on disability. In S. Baglieri & A. Shapiro (Eds.) Disability studies and the inclusive classroom (2nd edition) (pp. 17-32). New York, NY: Routledge.

Campbell, F.K. (2001). Inciting legal fictions: Disability’s date with ontology and the ableist body of the law. Griffith Law Rev,10, 42–62.

Campbell (2012). Stalking ableism: Using disability to expose ‘abled’ narcissism. In D. Goodley, B. Hughes & L. Davis (Eds.) Disability and social theory: New developments and directions (pp. 212-230). Palgrave.

Goodley, D. (2018). The dis/ability complex. DiGeSt. Journal of Diversity and Gender Studies, 5(1), 5-22.

Mingus. M. (2011, February, 11). Changing the framework: Disability justice. Leaving Evidence.

Parekh, G. G. (2014). Social citizenship and disability: Identity, belonging, and the structural organization of education [Doctoral dissertation, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto].

Reynolds, J. (2019). The meaning of ability and disability. The Journal of Speculative Philosophy, 33(3), 434-447.