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Ableism: The Causes and Consequences of Disability Prejudice

About the book

Ableism, prejudice against disabled people stereotyped as incompetent and dependent, can elicit a range of reactions that include fear, contempt, pity, and inspiration. Current literature— often narrowly focused on a specific aspect of the subject or limited in scope to psychoanalytic tradition—fails to examine the many origins and manifestations of ableism. Filling a significant gap in the field, Ableism: The Causes and Consequences of Disability Prejudice is the first work to synthesize classic and contemporary studies on the evolutionary, ideological, and cognitive-emotional sources of ableism. This comprehensive volume examines new manifestations of ableism, summarizes the state of research on disability prejudice, and explores real-world personal accounts and interventions to illustrate the various forms and impacts of ableism.

Table of contents

> 1. Introduction: Defining Ableism

While research on ageism, heterosexism, and anti-fat attitudes has been steadily increasing, the study of ableism or disability prejudice is still in its infancy (Corrigan 2014). First referenced over 35 years ago in the women’s news journal Off Our Backs (House 1981), ableism is an uncomfortable subject, a difficult dialogue, and not just because people feel bad for those who happen to be blind, deaf, or living with chronic physical, intellectual, or mental health conditions. Disappointment, disregard, discomfort, and distain are provoked, in part, because disability is a group that anyone can join – at any time. This can be scary, especially for those less familiar with diverse disabled people.

However, this book was designed to provoke difficult dialogues about disability – a social status that incites both hostile and benevolent forms of prejudice – a group that provokes stereotypes of incompetence and dependency, and behaviors that range from staring and unwanted assistance to abandonment, dehumanization, and hate crimes. As illustrated in the opening poem by educator, author, and activist Maria Palacios, sometimes these prejudices are motivated by fear and contempt – at other times pity, inspiration, and compassion are involved as well. Extending the multitude of volumes on racism, sexism, and intergroup prejudice more generally, this book is among the first to integrate the social scientific literature on the origins and manifestations of prejudice against disabled people as a social group writ large – a group that confronts pervasive discrimination for the right to live independently, to work, and to parent. … see more

> 2. The Evolutionary and Existential Origins of Ableism

The evolutionary and existential origins of ableism are among the more distal explanations for prejudice, less accessible to awareness. They focus on the relatively universal and unconscious tendencies that humans from around the world demonstrate, revealing some of our most basic needs for safety, belonging, and significance. This chapter first describes the basic premises of evolutionary theory, and its implications for disability prejudice. According to an evolutionary theory, one of the root causes of prejudice derives from biological predispositions that were adaptive in early hunter-gatherer societies – where communal living offered safety, and attention to potential threats helped protect the group (Kurzban and Leary 2001). The idea is that human ancestors who inherited the tendency to be watchful and wary of danger were more likely to survive, reproduce, and pass on these same traits to their children. This evolved capacity for watchfulness is considered to be threat specific, which may help to explain why prejudice comes in a variety of forms. For example, if a stranger acted in ways that signaled competition, the most adaptive response might be anger (and beliefs that justified retaliation). However, if a stranger or even someone from within the group acted in ways suggestive of illness or disease, the most adaptive response might be avoidance (and beliefs that justified the elimination of this threat)

Some disability prejudice, therefore, might be an evolutionary holdover from those who inherited a disease-avoidance system that became overly sensitive to people whose appearance or behavior signaled poor health – even if they were not infectious. If some people inherited an overactive disease-detection mechanism, they might stare and respond fearfully to others with disease cues like open sores, spasms, or missing limbs, which tend to characterize some of the world’s deadliest infections (Oaten et al. 2011). As a consequence, those who limp, tremor, or have uneven arms or eyes may trigger a false alarm in people who express discomfort and avoid contact even with objects touched by people with certain disabilities (Maguire and Haddad 1990). Some evidence in support of these ideas comes from tests of the disease-avoidance model of disability prejudice. Park et al. (2003) found that some people do overgeneralize their adaptive fear and disgust toward pathogens by avoiding those with disabilities who are not contagious. These evolved tendencies are even more likely when people feel vulnerable to disease, like when pregnant or in hospital settings. … see more

> 3. Justifying Ableism: Ideologies and Language

Where else do such ideas about disability as a fate worse than death originate? From childhood on, people are exposed to many stories about human variability, the causes of disability, and why some people are more deserving of opportunity than others. In contrast to the universal origins of prejudice, this chapter focuses on the intermediate origins of ableism reflected in the complex belief systems used to justify and perpetuate both privilege and oppression. The chapter begins with a review of how ideologies like Social Darwinism, Individualism, Meritocracy, and the Protestant Work Ethic provide handy explanations that can be used to make sense of status differences and discriminatory practices.

Disabled people have endured a long history of persecution, from institutionalization and forced sterilization to medical experimentation and systematic extermination (Morris 1991). How are such practices that result in persecution, economic exploitation, and hate crimes justified? Across most forms of victimization, ideological beliefs about disabled people’s deservingness of specific treatments can be found (Sherry 2016). Few people know that before World War II, over 240 000 disabled people were starved, gassed, and poisoned. Yet, these actions were not considered war crimes. Instead, they were rationalized as mercy killings intended to free families from “a lifetime of sacrifice” (Gallagher 1990). Ableist beliefs that cast disability as burdensome may be even more common when resources are scarce, or when disabled people are described as taking opportunities away from those benefiting from the way things are (Sidanius et al. 1994). Idealistic beliefs about improving society through human enhancements, designer babies, and selective abortions in the case of disability still persist today as part of the New Eugenics movement (Allen 2001).

Several contemporary and clashing ideologies underscore competing definitions of
disability itself, which have significant consequences for social policy. The moral, medical, and
social models of disability are analyzed in relation to theories of system justification and social
dominance. This work examines how different explanatory frameworks about disability can
either fortify or weaken unequal status relationships that keep some groups at the top of the
social hierarchy and others at the bottom. The disability models provide for very different
explanations about where the problems of disability are located, and therefore dictate very
different ideas about where solutions should be sought (Altman 2001). For example, when
disability is attributed to supernatural forces, people may be more likely to endorse the need for
divine intervention. Whether exorcism or other religious rituals are sought may depend on
whether disability is attributed to demon possession or to the workings of a merciful God whose
power is revealed through prayer (Braddock and Parish 2001). … see more

> 4. Cultural and Impairment-Specific Stereotypes

When language and media portrayals consistently associate certain characteristics with disability (e.g. helplessness, dependence, asexuality) while failing to link the group with other roles and capabilities (parenthood, independence, competence), cultural stereotypes become engrained in memory, shaping what people notice and fail to notice about others. Novels, movies, and cartoons are full of examples that perpetuate stereotypes by portraying disabled people as tragic victims, angry villains, and incompetent dupes (Haller 2010). Even contemporary, award-winning films (e.g. Million Dollar Baby; Me Before You) reinforce stereotypes whenever the disabled character chooses to die so as not to be a burden to loved ones (Dolmage and DeGenaro 2005). As noted in Chapter 3, the removal of life-sustaining food and breathing tubes can be justified as mercy killing as long as disabled people are characterized as suffering burdens.

Chapter 4 summarizes key lessons on the content, functions, and use of disability stereotypes as the more proximal, cognitive components of disability prejudice. In general, a stereotype is defined as a set of attributes used to characterize a group and its members (Ashmore and Del Boca 1981). Although faulty and incomplete, stereotypes are not uniformly negative. They serve important psychological functions that allow perceivers to go beyond what is directly observable, and to predict how people are likely to behave. For example, if teachers expect to have a student with a disability in their classroom, they may anticipate needing to accommodate the student’s perceived “special needs” or to help them overcome presumed dependence.

To date, most studies regarding disability stereotypes have focused on specific impairments such as physical, sensory, learning, or psychiatric conditions; yet, research examining the stereotypes of disabled people as a whole have been less common as psychology has been slow to conceptualize disabled people as a minority group (Nario-Redmond 2010). In reality, disabled people share many experiences with discrimination and restricted social status that are often reflected in stereotypic beliefs about the group. This chapter also summarizes research on the cultural stereotypes of disabled people which may not be personally endorsed, but can nevertheless impact judgments, interpretations, and decisions that influence policies. My own research team found strong consensus for cross-impairment cultural stereotypes generated spontaneously by both disabled and nondisabled people. These global or cross-impairment stereotypes characterize disabled people as dependent, incompetent, asexual, weak, passive, unattractive, and heroic (Nario-Redmond 2010). Such work directly contradicts previous assumptions that broad-based, consensually shared stereotypes about disabled people are unlikely due to the diversity of impairments that exist (Biernat and Dovidio 2000). … see more

> 5. Hostile, Ambivalent, and Paternalistic Attitudesu003cbru003eand Interactions

Moving from the origins of ableism to its consequences, the next two chapters focus on the distinct evaluative or attitudinal components of disability prejudice (Chapter 5), and how these impact disabled people (Chapter 6). Prejudicial attitudes include the emotional reactions aroused in response to disability, but also reflect cognitive beliefs which often motivate discriminatory behaviors (Esses and Beaufoy 1994). Attitudes are defined as relatively enduring, global evaluations about a person, group, idea, or issue (Eagly and Chaiken 1993). The expression of attitudes are the effects – the consequences of deep-seated universal fears, learned ideologies, and culturally bound stereotypes – but they can also be a source of prejudice when they contribute to restricted access, increased surveillance, and exploitation. Chapter 5 begins with key lessons from the large body of research on when negative (e.g. hostile, aversive) disability attitudes are most prevalent, and when more positive (compassionate, enviable) and mixed (pitiable, inspirational) or ambivalent reactions should emerge.

Research is contextualized according to the traditional methods popular in the quest to understand variations in attitudes toward disability, disabled people, and different impairments. Theory-driven perspectives are emphasized throughout, including approaches that examine when disability attitudes include both positive and negative evaluations at the same time, and how these ideas have been advanced by modern scholarship. For example, theories of ambivalent prejudice predict that when disabled people are assumed to be incompetent but warm, they are also the targets of disrespectful, condescending attitudes, and infantilizing actions. Consistent with this reasoning, pity and sympathy are the typical emotional responses to low-status, noncompetitive groups like the elderly and disabled (Fiske et al. 2002). Other evidence testing theories of ambivalent prejudice (Katz 1981; Glick and Fiske 2001) shows that positive or negative expressions of prejudice depend on whether disabled people behave in ways that are consistent or inconsistent with expectations. Disabled people who take on the “sick role” or are assumed to be dependent and incompetent are treated with benevolence and charitable concern while those who violate stereotypical expectations (e.g. participate in work, sex) are treated as threatening and receive more hostile reactions. Paternalistic attitudes and beliefs have been used to reward disabled people for their subordination, docility, and gratitude with supportive services and care, which then justifies the use of exploitation and control under the guise of protection. More hostile and aggressive forms of prejudice are more likely to emerge in response to those who challenge the status quo. … see more

> 6. Contending with Ableism from Internalized Ableismu003cbru003eto Collective Action

Although narratives and perspectives of disabled people are integrated throughout this volume, Chapter 6 is devoted to research documenting insider reactions to ableist treatments ranging from the subtle gestures of disgust, objectifying stares, and invasive questions to the more insidious forms of exploitation, harassment, and harm. Co-authored with Dr. Arielle Silverman, this chapter provides several personal accounts to give readers a firm sense of the many ways ableism is manifested at the interpersonal, intergroup, and institutional levels. Chapter 6 first describes research on how disabled people have coped with stigma and social disadvantage, and then addresses the consequences of these coping strategies for health, self-advocacy, and collective actions for social change.

People with disabilities have choices when it comes to how they respond to ableist treatment – usually with the goal of protecting a positive sense of self or identity. … see more

> 7. Interventions to Reduce Prejudice

Over the past 30 years, there have been numerous approaches to reducing prejudice toward disabled people. Some have had minimal effects while others have worsened stigma and discrimination. Chapter 7 provides a comprehensive review of interventions designed to improve understanding or reduce negative disability attitudes and other misinformed reactions. Much anti-prejudice research has focused on interventions to increase contact with minority groups under the assumption that friendly interactions will produce more equitable outcomes. Chapter 7 describes the considerable evidence from longitudinal, experimental, and field studies showing when intergroup contact is most effective, and how interactions depend on institutionally supported, cooperative, and equal status exchanges (Pettigrew and Tropp 2008). Longitudinal studies have found that nondisabled children who participate in cooperative exchange programs with disabled peers form more complex impressions about disability, and rate peers as more attractive than those who were not part of the inclusion program (Maras and Brown 1996). Nevertheless, increased access to higher education, employment, and public spaces may be more important than friendship when it comes to creating the optimal conditions for contact between groups on an equal status basis (Chapter 8).

Other approaches to prejudice reduction include diversity training and programs that deemphasize disability or treat it as but one, value-neutral aspect of human diversity (Björk 2009). Unfortunately, many of these interventions have time-limited effects and fail to generalize beyond the specific intervention context (Brown 2011), particularly if focused on de-categorizing individuals (e.g. “I don’t even think of you as disabled”). Thus, students may learn to like disabled peers at school but this may not translate to inviting them to the house or to gathering with other disabled people with whom they have never met. This chapter also summarizes the factors that contribute to generalization of respectful attitudes beyond the intervention setting, and identifies the benefits and limitations of different program types, comparing the effectiveness of initiatives that minimize disability status (colorblind approaches) to those that keep disability-categorization salient (multicultural approaches).
Finally, interventions designed to induce empathy and perspective taking by attempting to simulate the disability experience are also described. These popular interventions include wearing blindfolds or ear plugs to simulate sensory impairments or using wheelchairs to enable a “more direct understanding” of physical disabilities. Yet, such programs consistently fail to improve disability attitudes, and can make people feel helpless, confused, and more vulnerable to disability themselves (Nario-Redmond et al. 2017); some even became less willing to volunteer for a campus accessibility project. Finally, evaluations comparing between interventions are described along with suggestions for future research designed to promote more egalitarian outcomes, including how increased awareness of pervasive discrimination impacts behavior change.

> 8. Social Change via Collective Action and Advocacyu003cbru003efor Disability Rights

Historically, prejudice-reduction interventions have failed to evaluate the perspectives of those targeted – members of minority groups (cf. Makas 1988). Furthermore, many interventions detract attention away from group-based disparities or minimize the importance of cultural identities (Wright and Lubensky 2009). Others have been criticized as promoting assimilative forms of inclusion which perpetuate minority disadvantage (Saguy et al. 2009). The final chapter of this volume addresses these limitations and provides an agenda for future research and sustainable social change.

To date, prejudice-reduction programs have not been in the service of challenging intergroup inequalities. Instead, they focus more on increasing interpersonal liking and tolerance. It has been assumed that once advantaged group members change their attitudes, they will stop discriminating and open the doors of opportunity to the passive disadvantaged.

Historically, prejudice-reduction interventions have failed to evaluate the perspectives of those targeted – members of minority groups (cf. Makas 1988). Furthermore, many interventions detract attention away from group-based disparities or minimize the importance of cultural identities (Wright and Lubensky 2009). Others have been criticized as promoting assimilative forms of inclusion which perpetuate minority disadvantage (Saguy et al. 2009). The final chapter of this volume addresses these limitations and provides an agenda for future research and sustainable social change.

To date, prejudice-reduction programs have not been in the service of challenging intergroup inequalities. Instead, they focus more on increasing interpersonal liking and tolerance. It has been assumed that once advantaged group members change their attitudes, they will stop discriminating and open the doors of opportunity to the passive disadvantaged. To address these assumptions, lessons from the literature on collective action and the work of disabled people in changing ableist practices is reviewed. Specifically, this chapter synthesizes research on the outcomes of the disability rights movement, and the role of disability advocacy in addressing ableism and disability discrimination (Barnartt et al. 2001). Consistent with the social justice orientation of disability studies, an approach that applies the study of ableism for social change requires the integration of research about why stereotypes and cultural beliefs allow for ableist behaviors, how group identities influence feelings of threat and empathy, and how these reactions facilitate or impede self-advocacy and allyship.

Arguably, among the most enduring, positive impacts on ableist practices have been policy-based, including structural changes for inclusive integration at school and work, access to the built environment, and anti-discrimination legislation. This final chapter describes some of the latest research on the role of nondisabled allies (Ostrove et al. 2009), and the utility of coalition building across multiple minority groups. Finally, an agenda for future research is suggested that focuses on perceptions of intergroup injustice and behavioral change (e.g. volunteering, donating, protesting), including a clearer specification on what is meant by social change and the need to differentiate between compensatory, preferential, and mutually beneficial strategies for transformation.

Michelle Nario-Redmond is a Professor of Psychology and Biomedical Humanities specializing in stereotyping, prejudice, and disability studies. As a Ford Fellow, she graduated from the University of Kansas with a Ph.D. in social psychology. Her research focuses on group identification, wellness, political advocacy, and strategies for social change. Some of her work is published in Basic and Applied Psychology, British Journal of Social Psychology, Emerging Adulthood, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Perspectives on Psychological Science, Rehabilitation Psychology, Self and Identity, Social Cognition, Journal of Research in Personality, and the Journal of Social Issues. She has contributed chapters to Wiley-Blackwell’s Handbook of Positive Psychological Interventions, Oxford’s Disability: Social Psychological Perspectives, and AHEAD’s Disabled Faculty and Staff in a Disabling Society. In 2019, she published: Ableism: The Causes and Consequences of Disability Prejudice for the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues and delivered a Congressional Seminar on Capitol Hill. A graduate of APA’s Leadership Institute for Women in Psychology, she was the inaugural recipient of the Society for the Teaching of Psychology’s Promoting Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Award in 2021. Michelle is passionate about reducing disparities in health, increasing access and universally designed solutions for organizations. In collaboration with her daughter, Ceara, she created a school-based intervention to raise awareness of disability culture as a valued aspect of human diversity. Her favorite courses to teach include Who is Normal: Freak, Gimp, Crazy, Crip, and Gimpy GeezersRepresentations of Ableism and Ageism.

Author link

Michelle R. Nario-Redmond in the Media

Podcasts and Interviews

  • Case, K. (2023, April 11). Disability community, culture, and allies (Episode 21). Enough Ya’ll: The real talk podcast for intersectional allies and social justice academics.
  • Tatta, J. (2023, March 7). The pain of ableism and disability prejudice with Michelle Nario-Redmond (Episode 308). Healing Pain Podcast. Integrative Pain Science Institute.
  • Grant, A. (2022, June 13). It’s time to stop ignoring disability. WorkLife with Adam Grant. TED Podcast.
  • A lockdown silver lining for workers with disabilities. Axios Media Interview with Michelle Nario-Redmond. (2021, March 23).
  • How do I make my classroom inclusive from a lens of disability considerations? Ask Psych Sessions Podcast (ASK054). (2020, November 18).
  • Michelle Nario-Redmond. [Video episode]. Thought Leader Series. Ability Magazine. (2020, September 17).
  • How to teach children about disability, at every age. NBC Today. (2020, July, 28).
  • Sologie, A., & Brett, V. (Producers). (2019, December 10). Ableism with Michelle R. Nario-Redmond. [Audio podcast episode]. In the Inclusive Education Project Podcast.
  • Wong, A. (Host). (2019, November 6). Ableism with Michelle R. Nario-Redmond. Disability Visibility Project: A Community Partnership with StoryCorps. [Blog Interview].
  • Price, J. O. (Host). (2020, October 19). Disability Studies: What’s it like to be disabled? (No. 6). Disability News Report. [Video episode].
  • Goodner, B. (Host). (2019, July 23). Michelle Nario-Redmond, Ph.D. speaks about her new book. [Audio podcast]. Hiram College, Hiram, OH
  • Sokol, J. (Host). (2018, March 7). Potential changes to ADA with Hiram College’s Michelle Nario-Redmond. Jasen Sokol Show, WAKR. News/Talk/Sports. [Audio episode].
  • Abrams, A. (2018, February 26). ‘Our lives are at stake.’ How Donald Trump inadvertently sparked a new disability rights movement. [Interview]. Time Magazine.

United States Congressional Seminar

Ableism: The causes and consequences of disability prejudice. SPSSI 2019 Congressional Seminar, Washington DC. Nario-Redmond, M.R. (2019)

Conferences and Presentations

Multiple Perspectives Conference 2020, May 7 12:45-1:15 EST

SPSSI Conference Presentation 2019, June

Other Conferences



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