What is ableism?

profile picture of Diana Podlewska Monteiro
Inclusion Partner, Bupa Global and UK People Team
27 September 2022
Next review due September 2025

Have you recently heard the term ‘ableism’ but aren’t quite sure what it means? In this article, I explain what ableism is and how it can affect people’s wellbeing. I also share some tips for addressing ableism and avoiding it.

Runners and people in wheelchairs at a running event

What is ableism?

Let’s start by exploring what ableism is. Ableism describes discrimination and prejudice against disabled people in favour of non-disabled people. It can be intentional or unintentional. For example, by not making a workplace environment accessible for wheelchair users. Or, by asking personal questions about a person’s disability.

Like other types of discrimination, ableism is a problem in our society and culture. People may be completely unaware of the impact of their words or actions. But, it can have a negative impact on those who experience it.

How can you tell if someone is ableist?

Discrimination can happen in many different forms. It can range from very aggressive and harmful actions to more subtle interactions. Here are some examples.


  • Lack of compliance with disability laws.
  • Inaccessible designs, such as buildings with no wheelchair access or disabled toilets.


  • Telling someone to change their mindset or “not to become their disability”.
  • Talking to a disabled person like they’re a child.


  • Viewing a disabled person as an inspiration for doing typical things like having a career.
  • Not understanding or listening to a disabled person’s experiences.
  • Assuming a person is faking or exaggerating an invisible condition or disability.


  • Refusing to adjust a workplace/educational setting for someone with a disability.
  • Ignoring/pretending the disability doesn’t exist.

How does ableism affect people’s health and wellbeing?

We all deserve the same opportunities in life. But, ableism can prevent some disabled people from having the same opportunities as non-disabled people.

This can have a negative impact on disabled people’s physical and mental wellbeing. For example, there’s evidence to show it increases feelings of stress and depression.

It can also affect disabled people physically. For instance, some disabled people are not able to take part in activities or events that have not been adapted to meet their needs

There can be social drawbacks too. Research suggests that disabled people have less job opportunities than non-disabled people. Or they might be prevented from taking part in certain activities because of their disability.

What can you do to prevent ableism?

It’s important to see people as individuals and to not define them by their disability.

Here are some ideas to challenge your own preconceptions, and encourage a more inclusive environment.

  • Start by looking at your own behaviour. Ask yourself – would I ask this question to someone without a disability? Do I need to know this information?
  • If you’re an employer, consider the office space and those who will be using the area. How can you make it more accessible?
  • If you visit a place which isn’t accessible to disabled people, challenge it or make a complaint.
  • If you’re planning an event, make sure the arrangements accommodate disabled people.
  • Stop using ableist language in everyday conversations.
  • If you’re not disabled, don’t use facilities for disabled people (such as parking spaces, toilets).
  • Recognise that disabled and non-disabled people are equal.
  • Listen and appreciate the views, needs and opinions of disabled people.

How can you spot and avoid ableism and ableism language?

Here are five tips for avoiding ableism.

1. Learn about ableism

Educate yourself about disability issues through conversations, books, podcasts, or social media. Talk about and share your learnings with friends, family, and your workplace.

2. Focus on accessibility

Make your environment or content accessible for people with disabilities. For example, by adding text captions to videos. Or by removing barriers for people with physical or learning disabilities.

3. Include, don’t exclude

Interact with and include disabled people. Learn about their perspectives and opinions.

4. Don’t assume

Don’t make assumptions about someone’s ability based on their disability.

5. Challenge ableism in your own environment

Highlight accessibility challenges. Aim to make your own events/plans as accessible as possible.

Infographic: Ableism

This infographic shares some helpful ways that you can address ableism. Click on the image to open a larger PDF version of the infographic [PDF, 1.12 MB].

How do you address ableism infographic
profile picture of Diana Podlewska Monteiro
Diana Podlewska Monteiro
Inclusion Partner, Bupa Global and UK People Team

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    • Inclusive language: words to use and avoid when writing about disability. GOV.UK., accessed August 2022

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