Ableism and Ability Studies

Gregor Wolbring, Associate professor, Dept. of Community Health Sciences, Program in Community Rehabilitation and Disability Studies, University of Calgary, Canada,

As I see it, the theoretical framework and analytical lens of Ableism is a gift from the disabled people rights movement and disability studies to the social sciences and humanities.

I self-identify as a disability studies scholar, a science and technology studies scholar and an ability-cultural researcher (cultural research on ability preferences exhibited by individuals and societies). Ability expectations and preferences are one dynamic through which members of a group judge others and themselves and their lives. Ability preferences and judgments are at the root of many rules of behaviours and customs.  Every disability studies scholar is in my eyes also an ability-cultural researcher.

The term ableism evolved from the disabled people rights movements in the United States and Britain during the 1960s and 1970s, and is of course central to disability studies scholars. The term ableism was coined to be similar to sexism and racism, where a group could question certain negative behaviours towards themselves. Ableism used in this way allows for highlighting the disablement and disablism (Miller, Parker, & Gillinson, 2004) disabled people experience because their abilities do not fit the cultural preference for species-typical normative ability functioning and who therefore are labelled as ‘impaired’, as not able enough, as not able in the right way.

Ableism, however, is not limited to the species-typical/sub species-typical dichotomy.  With recent science and technology advances, and envisioned advances to come we see an ableism becoming visible that favours beyond species-typical abilities over species-typical and sub species-typical abilities. Furthermore ableism is not limited to body linked ability discourses.

Every person cherishes certain abilities and finds others non-essential. Some people cherish the ability to buy a car, some the ability to mountain climb, some the ability to perform academic work and others manual work. Some social structures are structured around GDPism (the ability to produce a GDP), efficiency, productivity and consumerism (the ability to consume), others could be organized around equity and empathy or any set of abilities. The list of abilities one can cherish is endless with new and different abilities added to this or that list all the time. The cherishing of abilities happens on the level of individuals as well as the level of households, communities, groups, sectors, regions, countries and cultures. There is a frequent trade-off between numerous abilities.

Ableism as such does not have to be negative – it just highlights that one favours certain abilities and sees them as essential. A culture may choose to cherish the ability to maintain equity for one’s members and members of a society could see this as positive. As a society one could decide that the ability to act as an individual without concern for the fate of others is a positive or a negative. What abilities are seen as essential and positive or which abilities or lack thereof are seen as negative are negotiated. In some ways disabled people and disability studies scholars negotiate with the world to see that the form of ableism that expects species-typical functioning with its accompanying disablism is negative.

Ableism in its general form leads to an ability based and ability justified understanding of oneself, one’s body and one’s relationship with others of one’s species, other species and one’s environment (Wolbring, 2011). We see increasingly ableism that plays itself out between generations of the young and elderly. We see a break between the young and the old where the elderly experience ageism (negative perception and/or treatment and lack of support of the elderly) due to a decrease of abilities of their youth and at the same time the perception that the remaining abilities the elderly hold have no particular use for the young or even society at large. And we see youthism where even the elderly try to regain the abilities of youth in order to escape ageism. Ableism influences how humans judge and relate to each others. What abilities one favours and what ableisms one exhibits is a dynamic that also defines human-nature relationship (anthropocentrism versus biocentrism), which in turn has an impact on which strategies and priorities are envisioned and employed for gaining water, energy climate and disaster security and avoiding insecurity, (an example is the recent legal developments in Ecuador and Bolivia that give rights to nature).

Given the above the concepts of ‘Ability inequity’, inequality, equity and equality, ability security and self-identity security (Wolbring, 2010) have enormous analytical currency for all kind of discourses. I coined a couple of years ago the term Ability Studies (Wolbring, 2008) which I defined, among others, to investigate: (a) the social, cultural, legal, political, ethical and other considerations by which any given ability may be judged, and which may lead to favouring one ability over another; (b) the impact and consequence of favouring certain abilities and rejecting others; (c) the consequences of ableism in its different forms, and its relationship with and impact on other isms.  I believe it to be an essential area of inquiry made possible through the initial development of the ableism term by the disabled people rights movement and the disability studies field. It’s up to the ‘others’ to see its value.


A slightly different version was published before on the blog of the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social SciencesVP Equity Issues series on diversity, creativity and innovation

Reference List 

Miller, P., Parker, S., & Gillinson, S. (2004). Disablism How to tackle the last prejudice DEMOS.Retrieved February 10, 2012 from

Wolbring, G. (2008). Why NBIC?  Why Human Performance Enhancement? Innovation; The European Journal of Social Science Research, 21(1), 25-40.

Wolbring, G. (2010). Ableism and Favoritism for Abilities Governance, Ethics and Studies: New Tools for Nanoscale and Nanoscale enabled Science and Technology Governance. In Susan Cozzens & Jameson M.Wetmore (Eds.), The Yearbook of Nanotechnology in Society, vol. II: The Challenges of Equity and Equality. New York: Springer.

Wolbring, G. (2011). Ableism and energy security and insecurity. Studies in Ethics, Law, and Technology, 5(1), Article 3. Retrieved from