Ableism at the Feminist Table: What Are Ableism and Accessibility, and Why Do Feminists Care?

by Carly Nelson

Ableism, simply put, is the idea that not having a disability is better than having a disability.  Growing up in the world of statements like “in spite of their disability (insert accomplishment here)” and “I don’t consider them to be disabled because they’re so successful (or some other word with positive connotations)” can make it surprising to learn that there’s an “ism” for that idea.  Let’s unpack that.

First, consider the idea that limitations are influenced by society.  Just as a single hand clapping will have no sound, “ability” only enables a person to accomplish a task when their capabilities match that task.  When we offer alternative distributions, supports, or definitions of tasks, we drastically increase the number of people who can be successful at them.  In organizations with multiple people, all of whom have diverse abilities by nature of being people, it’s logical and practical to plan operations in a way that makes use of individuals’ skills in a way that works for everyone.  Practice thinking about how tasks and duties can be adapted.

Such alterations also prompt us to reconsider “independence.”  Even when we call ourselves independent, we survive by depending on others.  I shower independently in the sense that I am typically alone when the showering occurs, but I certainly have not produced my own shampoo or gathered my own water.  I am dependent on others to do that, but nobody has ever questioned or lamented my dependence on others for the shampoo and water that are essential in my showering process.  If it for some reason becomes unsafe or overly difficult for me to shower without physical assistance, I will find someone who can help me.  There are plenty of people who rely on – and sometimes pay for – that kind of assistance in the same way that I purchase shampoo.  In either scenario, I’m getting help, and I’m getting clean hair.  

When people get their needs met through collaboration with others, that’s not inferiority or tragedy.  That’s life!  In a world where abilities are not universal, wouldn’t we be better off adapting our expectations and our structures to include everyone?  Inclusive spaces send the message that the space is intended for people of all ability levels – just as our spaces should be – and that people of all ability levels have something to offer.

So, as feminists, why do we care?  We care because the idea of collective liberation reminds us that our struggles are linked to the struggles of the groups around us; the same systems bind us all, and we must work together to overcome them.  We care because, as advocates for justice and equality, to not care would be to cast aside the very goals of safety, respect, and equality that we hold most dear.  We care because when we say feminism is for everyone, we need to mean that.

But caring isn’t enough.  As feminists, we know this.  Change comes when we carefully structure our words and actions around that caring.  Actively creating an accessible world is the responsibility of each of us, and we never know when we’ll be grateful we did.  Most who are not currently experiencing disability are “Temporarily Able-Bodied.”  We will all probably experience temporary or permanent disability in at least one area before the end of our lives.  Often, we are taught to fear this idea – to dread it and to hide any signs of it.  But if the disability rights movement teaches us anything, it is that disability is not the end of a meaningful life.  It is simply a need for systemic change.  We can start that change now.

Even as someone who already benefits from accessibility accommodations and regularly learns from others with disabilities, I still fall short of creating a fully inclusive environment.  I’ve found that having a question-based dialogue with myself is helpful in accessibility checks during meetings, events, and daily life.  Do the words that I’m using have a history of oppressing people with disabilities?  Is everyone involved aware of the walking distance/seating availability/elevator accessibility on the route I’m planning?  Am I speaking and writing simply and clearly?  How can I minimize things that might create difficult situations for some people (loud noises, bright lights, crowds, etc).  What modifications/escapes are available, and how have I publicized those?  Have I created an environment that empowers people to advocate for themselves, and am I listening carefully to them when they do?  We are always learning, and the only way to get better is to talk about it and to listen to people’s experiences.
So I ask you now to counter the ableism you’ve learned and to consciously pursue accessibility, and I don’t ask that lightly.  After all, I’m asking you to play a role in crucial change by rewiring the way you think and challenging heavily-normalized structures that have long oppressed people who deserve better.  Furthermore, I am asking you to consider the physical, cognitive, and emotional needs of a decidedly diverse group of people.  That’s a big ask.  Then again, what is feminism asking for?

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Image description: A group of hundreds of people, wearing an assortment of different colors and photographed from above, appear to be standing in the formation of a large gear.

Carly Nelson is a Speech Pathology & Audiology major at Kent State University.  She is also pursuing minors in Psychology and Nonprofit Studies in addition to a certificate in Disability Studies


Growing up Feminist

By: Christopher Titus

After reading the title you might think of an individual that was raised a granola eating progressive. However, I have completely condescended that stereotype. I am a heterosexual white middle class man raised within the Catholic school system that just happened to be born into a progressive family. From some of my first memories included watching my extended family members having political debates on current issues. The most popular topic of discussion was the debate of gender equality. Not only because it was always a hot button issue to discuss but because of our family structure. It was a matriarchal structure because of the majority of the family members were women but also because the strongest and most influential member of the family was my grandmother. She was a woman of great character that dedicated her life to social justice around the world. She believed the best way to achieve this was to pass her beliefs of social equality for all race, religions, sexuality, and genders to her children and grandchildren.

I was one of these children that was fully inducted into my grandmother’s social justice warrior program. The reason it was so important for my grandmother to teach the children these principles was her own personal experiences of not being seen as an equal because of her gender in terms of education. This always infuriated her since she knew she was smarter than all the boys in her classes but they were able to have more of an opportunity to achieve higher education. She worked hard to ensure that she would be able to get to college. Her mission started at a young age when she competed in the National Spelling Bee coming in second place in 1930s. With this achievement she earned a scholarship to help pay for her future college tuition. When she decided to go to college she was met with disapproval from her father, who did not like the idea of a woman being college educated. My grandmother decided to go against her father and attend Otterbein College. There she received two Bachelor’s degrees in English and French. During her last year in college she went back home and was set up on a blind date with my grandfather who fell in love with her because of her intelligence and opinions on how people should be treated. After both of them finished their degrees they were married and had 11 children, one those being my father. In total breakdown it was eight girls and three boys.

My grandmother wanted to show her children a good example, so anytime she could she would help out people. This later turned into her activism work during the 1960s that would last the rest of her life. She fought for an equal society that refrained from using violence at all costs. She took this role as an activist as a full-time job with her side job of being a librarian. She kept her bookshelves at home lined with feminist literature and taught to her children the equality the genders have no matter if they are men or women.

Fast forward to my parents meeting, my dad brought my mom home to get the stamp of approval. My grandmother instantly loved her because of their shared ideals of a progressive society that included gender equality, even though I think they would both admit to thinking that women are the better sex. They have instilled the belief of equality on me as much as they could battling with my peers and societal norms that contradicted their efforts to teach me the right way to teach people. This past year my grandmother passed, our last conversation was typical, we discussed my life, politics, and how women are represented into society. Even in our last conversation she still managed to teach me the importance of equality.  The ideals taught to me by both of these women will last a lifetime and hopefully I will be able to pass it down to others just like they did.


Christopher Titus is a Kent State University student majoring in Public Communication and Political Science.