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"The stigmatized individual is asked to act so as to imply neither that his burden is heavy not that bearing it has made him different from us; at the same time he must keep himself at that remove from us which assures our painlessly being able to confirm this belief about him. Put differently, he is advised to reciprocate naturally with an acceptance of himself and us, an acceptance of him that we have not quite extended to him in the first place."

Goffman, 1963, p.122


In the 70s’, along with the feminist and disability rights movements, a few sociologists shifted their approach towards disability from ""What’s wrong with people with disabilities," to "What are the social forces that determine people with disabilities’ chances in life."" (Bogden & Biklen, 2013, p.1) This reframing of the discussion of disability inspired Bogden and Biklen the term handicapism, which they coined in 1977 as the “set of assumptions and practices that promote the differential and unequal treatment of people because of apparent or assumed physical, mental, or behavioral differences.” In their work, Bogden and Biklen highlight prejudice, stereotypes, and discrimination as the basis and results of such assumptions. They then demonstrate the pervasiveness of these ideas, taking, for example, the media image of disability, the barriers disabled individuals face daily, and the extent to which handicapism is structurally integrated (in education, law, and public services, for instance).

Later on, in the 80s’, the term handicapism became ableism. Its definition was broadened: in addition to referring to patterns of discrimination against disabled people, it includes patterns of discrimination in favor of abled individuals. A field of study developed from the work of scholars using this concept as the lens of their approach: disability studies. This field of research is as rich as ableism is pervasive, ranging from film studies to law case analysis, passing by health challenges, cultural questions, and problematics related to inclusivity and accessibility. One of its most recent and notable development is the formulation of Crip theory by McRuer in early 2000’. Focusing on identity, disability, and sexuality, McRuer sheds light on the potential of the intersections between disability studies and queer theories.

Ableism in academia

Although academia prides itself in saying its primary concern are transmission of knowledge and the pursuit of research, political and social movements from the past decades have shed light on systematic patterns of discrimination which take place in education. Among them: racism, sexism, and … ableism. This tendency of exclusion makes navigating academia “a personal and political endeavour requiring intense emotion work” (Brown & Leigh, 2020, p.1) for any individual relating to one or more marginalised community. Although someone’s position in academia should be defined by the quality of the work done, anyone from a marginalised community find themselves absorbed by social, political, and technical barriers that do not have anything to do with their work's topic.

To make academia more accessible, it is first crucial to be aware of the consequences of ableist frameworks on traditional teaching methods. Questions of accessibility, for instance, are an inevitable part of disabled individual’s experiences in education. How is one supposed to learn if the content is literally put out of their reach? Secondly, it is essential to raise awareness on ableist stereotypes which (consciously or unconsciously) guide teachers’ perspective on the academic abilities and intelligence of disabled students. An accessible and inclusive education is not one where students flourish despite daily micro-aggressions and continual efforts to access a class’ content before they can study it.


     Bogdan, R. & Biklen, D. (2013). Handicapism. In: Wappett, M. & Arndt, K. (eds) Foundations of Disability Studies. Palgrave Macmillan, New York.

     Brown, N. & Leigh, J. (2020). Ableism in Academia: Theorising experiences of disabilities and chronic illnesses in higher education. London, UK: UCL Press.

     Goffman, E. (1963). Stigma: Notes on the management of spoiled identity. New York, USA: Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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