Ableism in Medicine

Ableism can best be described as “practices or policies that treat people with disabilities as if they were invisible, disposable and less than human, while taking for granted able-bodiedness as humanity’s default state”(Neilson 2020). It affects people with both physical and mental disabilities, both receiving healthcare and even while working in the field. Today we’ll look into some of the best ways you can work on addressing ableism, and the very real and very damaging unconscious bias many people have against both visible and invisible disabilities.


Shane Neilson discusses their experience with ableism in the medical field, here, and suggests the following strategies for improving things.


  1. Change should begin with everyone at home. Neilson suggests “be kind to a suffering physician today” and refers to the fact that people working in the medical field are just as likely to be struggling with disabilities, including invisible mental illness, as anyone else. Remember to be patient and kind.

  2. Understand disability and ability more as a continuum, instead of as categories of either normal and pathological. Treat your own able bodiedness or neurotypicality as a state of being, rather than the aforementioned categories. As Neilson says, “Even the heartiest and most hale among us are able-body-minded only temporarily.”

Furthermore, whether you work in the medical field or not, it’s vital to keep a few things in mind to curb everyday ableism.

  1. Don’t assume that you have any right to a person’s personal information or medical history. While it may seem innocuous enough, asking someone about things like their physical aids (wheelchairs, crutches, prosthetics, etc..) can make the receiver feel uncomfortable and devalued. Remember that they do not owe you answers to any questions you may have, particularly in regards to “how they came to be disabled.” Asking someone to recount such personal information just because you think their disability is visible to you is inconsiderate, and can also sometimes remind the receiver of past trauma and discomfort.

  2. Avoid using spaces and objects meant to make places and activities more accessible to disabled people. Leave things like wheelchair accessible ramps, elevators, disabled toilets and parking spaces, available for someone who actually needs them.

  3. Particularly healthcare professionals, do not speak to disabled people through a third person. Discuss with your patient their care in the same way you would speak to an able bodied patient. Allow the people you treat to take the lead in how they may need help, and afford them the same autonomy as anyone else in your office would get.

  4. Do not make the assumption that disabled people want to be able-bodied-minded or “normal.” Do not segregate or mentally discriminate against someone’s human differences by maintaining that they should want to be like you.