Terminology

This is a list of key terms found in critical disability studies.

  • Ableism: as defined by TL Lewis: “A system that places value on people’s bodies and minds based on societally constructed ideas of normalcy, intelligence, excellence and productivity These constructed ideas are deeply rooted in anti-Blackness, eugenics, colonialism, and capitalism. This form of systemic oppression leads to people and society determining who is valuable and worthy based on a person’s appearance and/or their ability to satisfactory [re]produce, excel and ‘behave.’ You do not have to be disabled to experience ableism.”
  • Access: “the power, opportunity, permission, or right to come near or into contact with someone or something… the relationship between the disability bodymind and the environment.” (Bess Williamson)
  • Audism: "The notion that one is superior based on one's ability to hear or to behave in the manner of one who hears." Tom Humphries. From: Gallaudet University’s. What is Audism?
  • Black Disability Studies: A field of study that examines the entwinement of Blackness and disability throughout the formation of each concept within history, culture, and society. Building from Critical Race Theory, Black Disability Studies argues that Blackness can not be thought of as a “special topic” but must be understood as integral to disability studies, and disability must be understood as integral to Black and Africana Studies. (NBDC)
  • Bodymind: A term used to challenge the idea the body and mind are experienced separately (Descartes). Written in various ways, Bodymind or Body-mind, this usage foregrounds the understanding that experiences of the bodymind are integrated (Price)
  • Crip: A term used historically to stigmatize and oppress disabled people. It has been reclaimed by some people disabled people. It should only be used with permission from the community or person who is being referred to, or regarding the theories noted below. There is discussion about whether crip refers only to the physical disability community, or other experiences as well.
    • Crip theory” as an academic (sub)field that was first made popular by scholars like Robert McRuer and Carrie Sandahl. Crip theory is a blurring or merging of queer theory and critical disability studies. Crip theory explores how the social pressures and norms around ability intersect with the social pressures and norms around gender/sexuality.
    • Crip time: A concept arising from disabled experience that addresses the ways that disabled/chronically ill and neurodivergent people experience time (and space) differently than able-bodyminded folk. In her essay on Crip Time, Ellen Samuels quotes her friends Alison Kafer, who says that crip times means: "rather than bend disabled bodies and minds to meet the clock, crip time bends the clock to meet disabled bodies and minds."
  • Disability: an identity; A bodymind experience; a community.
  • (Dis)Ability: “The overarching social systems of body and mental norms that includes ability and disability” (Sami Schalk)
    • NOTE: This is different than the “See my ability, not my disability” message which erases disability, rather, notes that how we make sense of disability requires we also think about the norms related to ability.
  • Disability Justice Movement: A movement developed by disabled Black, indigenous, other people of color, and queer/trans people, originating in the Sins Invalid community. The focus of disability community work is shifted through the principles of: leadership of the most impacted, intersectionality, anti-capitalist politic, commitment to cross-movement organizing, recognizing wholeness, sustainability, commitment to cross-disability solidarity, interdependence, collective access, and collective liberation
  • Pedagogy: The study of teaching and learning.
  • Supercrip: Eli Clare shared the Supercrip as named by disability community for two different experiences of ableism:
    1. Disabled people are only viewed as valuable when accomplishing superhuman tasks (like climbing an impossible mountain), or
    2. People are praised for ordinary everyday life like getting dressed or going to shop, because people’s expectations of disabled people are so low.
  • Feminist Disability Studies: An approach to disability studies that challenges dominant assumptions about disability and ability through political, cultural, and social critics of power. FDS questions the meanings attached to disabled bodies and minds and situates these meanings within broader social systems of power and oppression. For more information on FDS see works by: Susan Wendell, Rosemarie Garland Thompson, and Kim Q. Hall.
  • Inclusive Design: “A method of teaching in which instructors and classmates work together to create a supportive environment that gives each student equal access to learning.” (Georgetown) Inclusive design is an approach to designing spaces, schools, and processes to center the most marginalized bodyminds and make spaces work better for everyone. It allows for flexibility and multiple ways to do tasks. Instead of planning for average-size adult men, It seeks to design from the start to avoid and reduce barriers related to disability, gender, race/racism, money, transportation, age, size, and other human differences.
  • Intersectionality: An analytical framework coming from Black feminist thought and attributed directly Kimberle Crenshaw. Intersectionality explains that sociopolitical systems of power and inequality “intersect,” overlap, or merge to create distinct experiences of oppression (or privilege) for people at the axes of those systems.
  • Mad Studies: A field of study that connects and overlaps with critical disability studies. Mad studies investigate how experiences labeled as “mental illness” and/or “neurological deficit ” are historically and socially determined by cultural norms (i.e. Bipolar, Autism). The word “mad” is a reclaimed word borrowed from the Mad Liberation or Psychiatric Survivors movement of the late 1960s - 1970s.
    • “Mad” should only be used with permission from the community or person who is being referred to, or regarding the theories noted.
  • Models of Disability: Disability activists and scholars developed the language “models of disability” in order to name the various cultural responses to disability. Each model has its own history and is unique in every cultural context. The models described below are some of the most commonly referred to models within disability studies and disability activism:
    • Moral: disability is evidence that the person (or their family) have sinned or believe in the wrong things. The solutions to disability are prayer with corrected beliefs, doing the correct things such as eating enough kale, or punishment (often incarceration). One historical example is the Ugly Laws which jailed people for being in public with a visible disability. A current example is how HIV is viewed as God’s punishment.
    • Charity: disability is tragic and means people cannot contribute to society. The response, then, is pity and institutional “care” away from other people (who do not want to be reminded of this tragedy). Historically, and still today, this often comes up in fundraising and nonprofits who objectify disabled people with messages of pity to raise money.
    • Biomedical / Medical: Before and between the World Wars, medicine advanced to be able to cure and prevent many common causes of early death like infections. The medical industry developed with the idea that disability was being sick or broken, and needed medical cure. When cure wasn’t possible, the person was either blamed, or viewed as better off dead. This model is prevalent today in many forms. Note: Healthcare is an important human right for all people, especially disabled people and healthcare does not have to be the Medical Model.
      • Rehab Model: when disabilities could not be cured, rehabilitation emerged as an important tool to return to community life. However, some of the ways of viewing this task became problematic when they viewed the goal as looking as “normal” as possible - risking safety, functioning adaptively, and sustainability. In particular, walking was pushed over wheelchair use.
    • Social Model: created by disabled people, the Social Model argues that humans naturally come in a variety of bodyminds, which are changed and shaped by our environment. What bodyminds we treat as valuable or are devalued are social and political decisions. Societies decide which bodyminds are normal or abnormal (disabled) and then create systems and spaces to fit only those deemed normal. This in turn leads to the exclusion, abuse, and violence toward bodyminds who have been labeled as disabled. The Social Model argues that nothing is “wrong” with the disabled bodymind but that it is the inaccessible society that is the issue or problem that needs to be fixed.
      • Political/Relational: Building upon the Social Model (Kafer and others), this model urges us to remember that disability is always a political category. Disability is deeply connected to anti-black racism, xenophobia, sexism, homophobia, classism, and other forms of oppression. These systems of power both create more disabled people and limit the life chances of disabled people who experience them. This approach offers a critical engagement with medical, rehab, and other health care systems because many disabled people need these systems to survive and also routinely experience oppression, violence, and exclusion from them. Disability is understood as relational because disability and ability define one another, and disability does not occur in isolation.
    • Neurodiversity and Neurodivergence: Neurodiversity is the idea that all brains and connected bodyminds are diverse in how they work - no two brains or nervous systems are the same, and all sh. Neurodivergence is a term (named by multiply neurodivergent blogger and activist Kassianne Sibley) when some brains and bodyminds are pathologized and discriminated against. These terms come from autistic communities, who have welcomed folks with other marginalized brain/bodyminds to use them, including but not limited to people with cognitive, brain injury, epilepsy, learning and mental health disabilities.
  • Post Colonial Disability Studies: Colonialism and racism are critical to understanding disability. Some postcolonial disability studies scholars say that disability is not only an identity, but a social condition resulting from imperialism. Postcolonial disability studies centers on how disability cannot be separated from not only colonialism, but also racism, genocide, slavery, migration, and war. Finally, postcolonial disability studies explores decolonial disabled ways of knowing and being.
  • Sanism: A system of oppression against people with (or thought to have) mental health or psychiatric disabilities. Sanism is tied with the pathologizing (defining as abnormal or sick) different ways of experiencing the world, often in ways that are defined to oppress via racism, sexism, colonialism, heterosexism, and gender normativity. Sanism has been used to justify institutionalization, loss of legal rights, and other violence.