Privilege in an Ablist society


Wikipedia defines ablism as:

Ableism (pronounced ey-buh-liz-uhm) is a form of discrimination or social prejudice against people with disabilities… It is also sometimes known as disablism, although there is some dispute as to whether ableism and disablism are synonymous, and some people within disability rights circles find the latter term’s use inaccurate.

The ableist worldview holds that disability is an error, a mistake, or a failing, rather than a simple consequence of human diversity, akin to raceethnicitysexual orientation or gender

Essentially, Ablism is the description used by disabled people to refer to the systematic discrimination they face, just as Feminists use sexism, to describe a world they inhabit that affords advantages to men.

Membership of a privileged group in an unequal society.

Under sexism, we can understand that men are the oppressing group, women are the oppressed group. Obviously, this is not to say that all men are advantaged over all women. However, this is the basic framework we’re going to use when looking at ablism. In this case, not-yet-disabled people are the oppressing group, disabled people are the oppressed group. This means that the not-yet-disabled are said to have “privilege”.

If you do a Google search for “feminism 101″ or “sexism privilege” you’ll find a whole range of blogs and articles to discuss what these terms mean. I’m going to use several of them to explore the meaning.


(Privilege) It is a status that is conferred by society to certain groups, not seized by individuals, which is why it can be difficult sometimes to see one’s own privilege.

Male privilege is a set of privileges that are given to men as a class due to their institutional power in relation to women as a class. While every man experiences privilege differently due to his own individual position in the social hierarchy, every man, by virtue of being read as male by society, benefits from male privilege.

Although different privileges bestow certain common characteristics (membership in the norm, the ability to choose whether to object to the power system, and the invisibility of its benefit), the form of a privilege may vary according to the power relationship that produces it. Male privilege and heterosexual privilege result from the gender hierarchy. Class privilege derives from an economic, wealth-based hierarchy.

Lots of my readers are OTs and other healthcare workers, and they might already be feeling a bit of bristling, and thinking “but I’M not someone who discriminates against disabled people”.

First, let’s define some of the terms we need to use to explore this,  then look at if and when they could apply to your practice, your interactions.

Privilege was first coined in discussions about “White Privilege” by Peggy McIntosh in  “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”.

McIntosh observes that whites in the U.S. are “taught to see racism only in individual acts of meanness, not in invisible systems conferring dominance on my group.” To illustrate these invisible systems, McIntosh wrote a list of 26 invisible privileges whites benefit from.

Inspired by this, the feminist community used the term to discuss male privilege.

From “The Male Privilege Checklist“, a statement about privilege:

… an internet acquaintance of mine once wrote, “The first big privilege which whites, males, people in upper economic classes, the able bodied, the straight (I think one or two of those will cover most of us) can work to alleviate is the privilege to be oblivious to privilege.”

“The Male Privilege Checklist” explores just what feminists say when they state that men enjoy “privilege”. For our purposes, we could explore privileges aforded to “not-yet-disabled” for men, versus “disabled” for women, to see how the term could apply to our experiences.

The Feminism 101 Blog is a great resource to give you access to good explanations of basic concepts in rights-based movements such as feminism. Often, you’ll find in feminist safe spaces that people will refuse to answer basic or level 101 questions about sexism, and these resources are specifically set up to assist people with no prior study of the issues to be able to join these issues without derailing discussions by requests to go over old and concluded arguments.

I haven’t found much as examples of Ablism 101, but I think this reflects the different stage we are at as a movement, and the fact that these discussions have not yet moved beyond the special interest groups examining the experience of contemporary disability, into mainstream conversation. I’m hoping to encounter more resources that will help with this, as the Paralympics seem to be changing the discourse around ability and disability, as are the Governments changes to the Welfare State here in the UK. This is, understandably, causing reaction to ripple through the disabled community as we define what the Paralympics stand for, for us.

I am proposing that there is such a thing as “Ablist privilege”, and that it is the responsibility of the not-yet-disabled community to reflect on what that means, and to deconstruct it with their disabled colleagues and friends.

What is Derailing?

Derailing is the term for bringing up irrelevant items within a discussion thread, or insisting the discussion happens on terms you are comfortable with, which shifts the focus of attention from the subject at hand to the subject preferred by the derailer. People often attempt to derail conversations because of their privilege.

“Educate me” as a derailing tactic

A particular attempt to derail is made when people with privilege expect those without it to educate them. Rather than take responsibility for their own behaviour, and reflect and research why a person might have told them their language was inappropriate, they attempt to reflect the responsibility for their education back onto the offended party.

I recently encountered this when I attempted to call out a person that I felt was unconcious of their ablist privilege in advising disabled people to “Educate, don’t bitch“. Please see the extract below:

There is an appetite, an opportunity, an excitement from the general public. A chance to, dare I say it ‘normalise’ disability, I know, I know, but the point I’m trying to make is that many people who only ever glance out the corner of their eyes, and those who blatantly stare at someone with a disability strolling down the street, have the chance to see what disabled people can, and do, achieve. They have the opportunity to learn, to watch, to engage. I think we should all be welcoming this chance.

….and yet my twitter stream has lots of people complaining about language, about how people refer to disability, about people getting it wrong. There are concerns about being too patronising, or claiming people are superhuman when really they’re just getting on with their lives. I thought Georgie Bingham summarised it quite well in her blog post about reporting the Paralympics. There have also been a couple examples of athletes getting into trouble with other athletes for dissing their sport or their efforts.

I know language is important, I know it *is* worth considering how we communicate. I also know that many, many people are currently engaging with the Paralympics who don’t have every day contact with people who are disabled, or don’t know that they do. People are interested, they are ready and waiting to be inspired. Some of them are alo nervous, worried about getting it wrong, offending someone or misunderstanding them. Please, please can we focus positively and educate people but let’s not get all huffy about people who get it wrong, not the first time anyway. I think as a society we have a long way to go until people are comfortable with disability, there is lots that needs to improve, but let’s take people with us on that journey. Let’s educate not bitch. I think we’re far more likely to change perceptions and have a lasting legacy if we bring people with us and do so positively.

There followed a Twitter conversation, and comments back and forth on the blog. I’m deeply grateful to George for giving me the opportunity to think about why this idea that disabled people should “Educate, not bitch” would upset me so, and the word I found myself wanting to use was derailing- it was one of the conversations that led to my posting this blog.

“Derailing for Dummies” has an entire section devoted to this, and I’m reproducing it below as it explains far better than I can how this happens:

If You Won’t Educate Me How Can I Learn?

Whilst seemingly simple on the surface, there is some intertwining subtext embedded within this one.First of all, you’re placing responsibility for your education back onto the Marginalised Person™. As they are obviously engaged with these issues, and care about them, they are hopeful that Privileged People® may one day start listening and taking on board what they have to say. By placing responsibility to educate in their hands, you tug at this yearning. You may even successfully make many question themselves and their selfish expectations that you utilise the hundreds upon hundreds of resources on the subject available to you as a Privileged Person®! After all, anyone who expects you to be able to research a topic by yourself also clearly expects you to be far more of a functioning adult than you’re acting! 
By insisting you can only learn if they right then and there sacrifice further hours of time going over the same ground they have so often in the past, you may also make them give up and go away altogether, enabling you to win by default. But further, you give the impression that you really want to learn, but they’re holding you back! That’s right, using this tactic you can suggest that full understanding is what you crave – you want to be a better, more connected and compassionate person – but it’s not your fault! Nobody ever gave you the education! And now that someone is here who is so obviously qualified, they’re denying you your Privilege® given right to have everything you want handed to you on a platter! Which brings us to another key component of this argument – it is very important, in conversations with Marginalised People™, to constantly remind them that you are, indeed, Privileged®. By demonstrating your belief that Marginalised People™ should immediately gratify your every whim, you remind them of their place in society. After all, they’re not there to live lives free of discrimination and in happy, independent and fulfilling ways! Please! Marginalised People™ exist for your curiosity and to make you generally feel better about your place in society and don’t let them forget it! 

I also love this piece, from the same blog:

If You Cared About These Matters You’d Be Willing To Educate Me

This is the natural follow-up to the above argument, although it can also be used independently.

You see, often in these discussions a Marginalised Person™ will tell you it’s not their responsibility to educate you. This is because Marginalised People™ believe that they have other priorities in life, like working and studying and being with their families for example. 

Clearly, they are labouring under a misperception – as a Privileged Person® you have far more right to their time than they do, and besides, don’t they want to make the world a better place? Isn’t that why they alerted you to the fact you were being offensive in the first place? Well, now clearly your education is their responsibility!
By placing this burden of responsibility onto them you remind them of just how daunting a task that is and how their lives are constantly being monopolised by the Privileged®, even in something that should be empowering to them, like deconstructing discrimination.

You trivialise their lives, needs, interests and obligations by suggesting they should be spending all of their time and energy in engaging with clueless Privileged People®, putting in hours and hours of effort in repeating the exact same thing they’ve already said three thousand times to three thousand other Privileged People® in their past.

And furthermore, you remind them that, if they really cared about their own issues, they’d willingly take that task on! Surely it’s a small price to pay to change people‘s minds?

Well, you want them to think that, but of course it isn’t.  After all, most of the conversations they have with Privileged People® often feel to them like beating their heads repeatedly against a brick wall embedded with rusty spikes. 

Which is entirely the point. Keep them worn out and exhausted and maybe they’ll just go away.

The aim of this piece was to introduce the concepts of ablism, privilege and derailing to you. You may not have come across them before, but understanding this sociological theory can be really helpful to enable us to understand the murky dynamics at play with societal resistance to rights-based movements.

If you would like to take the next step, I’m completing a post about intersectionality, next.


Ablism, Wikipedia [Available at Accessed on 02/09/12 at 22.34]

Derailing for dummies, [Available at and Accessed 02/09/12 at 22.12]

Francesca Martinez (2012) Empty words don’t fund a full life for disabled people. The Independent. 2nd September, 2012. [Available at Accessed on 02/09/2012 at 22.19]

Peggy McIntosh (1990) White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.  Available at [Accessed on 02/09/12 at 22.40]

Male Privilege, Finally a Feminism 101 Blog (frequently asked questions). Available at  [Accessed on 02/09/12 at 22.36]

The Male Privilege Checklist, Alas! A Blog.  Available at [Accessed on 02/09/12 at 22.39]

Stella Young (2012) We’re not here for your inspiration. ABC Ramp UP 02/07/2012. Available at [Accessed on 02/09/12 at 22.47]


I am an Occupational Therapist, who writes about health, particularly mental health. I am interested in social media and Web 2.0, and where these technological advances can support wellness and health.

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2 comments on “Privilege in an Ablist society
  1. good piece Claire! Important for consideration.

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I'm an OT called Claire. I write about health, particularly mental health, and also about Social Media and Web 2.0 technology. I am particularly interested where these two fields overlap.
I believe that we all hold the potential for Recovery- let's grow together.

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