Student Disability Commission

Disability 101

Identity-First vs Person-First Language

Identity-First Language: Emphasizes that a disability plays a role in who the person is (i.e disabled person). Certain communities strongly prefer identity first language (i.e Deaf, Blind, Autistic, Neurodiverse)

Person-First Language: Puts a person before their diagnosis (i.e person with a disability). Some communities, such as the intellectual and developmental disability (IDD) community, strongly prefer person-first. However, this language is mostly pushed by the parents/caregivers of these individuals, not the individuals themselves.

The disability community has various opinions on which language to use, however we at the SDC prefer to use identity-first language. Our advice on which language is best to use is to listen to disabled folks around you and see what they prefer!

Defining Disability

Disability is an all encompassing term includes both visible and invisible disabilities. Disability is defined as “a physical or mental condition that limits a person’s movements, senses or activities (Americans with Disabilities Act, 1990)” Here are some common examples of disabilities:

Physical Disabilities: wheelchair users, blindness or vision impairment, d/Deaf or hard of hearing, low mobility, etc.

Psychological Disabilities: learning disabilities, ADHD, dyslexia, speech and language impairments, autism, neurodivergency, etc.

Mental Disabilities: depression disorders, anxiety disorders, mood disorders, bipolar disorder, Madness, etc.

Diseases: lupus, cancer, anemia, long COVID, asthma, diabetes, etc.

Deaf, not Disabled

The Deaf community typically do not refer to themselves as ‘disabled.’ Rather the community emphasizes that they are a linguistic and cultural minority.

The community uses a capital D Deaf to describe individuals who culturally identity as Deaf, whereas lowercase d deaf is used to describe individuals who have the medical label of deafness.

Invisible Disabilities

“26 million Americans (almost 1 in 10) have a severe disability, while only 1.8 million used a wheelchair and 5.2 million used a cane, crutches or walker (Americans with Disabilities 94-95). In other words, 74% of Americans who live with a severe disability do not use such devices. Therefore, a disability cannot be determined solely by whether or not a person uses assistive equipment.”

Invisible Disabilities Association, 1995

Most disabilities cannot be seen by the naked eye, but still has similar disabling effects of any other visible disability. Invisible disabilities tends to be related senses, mental, psychological or learning; Blindness, chronic pain, depression, dyslexia, and eating disorders are some examples.

People with invisible disabilities are often subject to more scrutiny than people with visible disabilities. Since their disability isn’t visible, most individuals need to ‘prove their disability’ in order to receive supports, services, and accommodations.

Models of Disability

Social Model of Disability (aka Diversity Model, Cultural Model)

  • Individuals are disabled by barriers in society, not by their impairments or difference
  • Not something that needs to be fixed in a person, but society needs to be changed for the person
  • Views disability as a way of being in society and that variation is normal 
  • Disability should be embraced as a part of diversity
Wheelchair with UW W at the bottom of stairs in which each step reads 'academic hardships' 'judgements' 'ableism' 'hardship withdraw' 'barriers'

Individual Model of Disability (aka Medical Model, Charity Model, Tragedy Model)

  • Individuals are disabled by their impairments or differences 
  • Views disability as a bad variation in society that needs to be fixed
  • Disabled people should strive to become as able-bodied as possible or hide their disability to pass as able-bodied
  • Disabled people need charity and pity since their situation is unfortunate

Affirmation Model of Disability

  • Disability is not merely tolerable in society, but may actually be beneficial
  • Disability Gain
    • Wheelchair user may actually be able to move a lot faster than anyone on foot, given an accessible surface
    • Autistic people may be excellent at recognizing patterns or cross-cultural communication

None of the models are perfect!!


Ableism is defined as the discrimination against disabled individuals in favor of able bodied people The term is grouped with racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and many other terms referring to discrimination. Ableism comes in many forms:

Ableist language:

Unbeknownst to many, we use microaggressions against disabled people on the daily

  • ‘Thats crazy’
  • ‘What are you, deaf?’
  • ‘Your psycho’
  • ‘I am so OCD’
  • ‘Sorry I didn’t see you, must be blind’
  • Use and any reiteration of the R-Word

Although these words may be normalized in society, think about how these may trivialize and demeans the experiences of disabled people. Consider using “wild” instead of “crazy” and/or just being honest about what’s going on instead of chalking it up to a disability.

Please do not use euphemisms when referring to disability:

  • ‘Differently-abled’
  • ‘Special Needs’
  • ‘Handicapped’
  • ‘Impaired’
  • ‘Challenged’
  • ‘Wheelchair Bound’
  • Use and any reiteration of the R-Word

Ableist architecture

Even with the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990 many buildings and public areas remain to be inaccessible for many. Many buildings, spaces, and products do not consider the needs of disabled individuals in the design process, creating many inaccessible designs.

  • Stairs
  • Bumpy sidewalks
  • Tight hallways
  • Curbs
  • Fixed-seating classrooms

Structural ableism:

Structural ableism includes psychical barriers, laws, policies, practices, and regulations that disadvantages disabled individuals from equal access and opportunities.

  • Segregating students with disabilities to special schools
  • Lack of disability representation in media
  • Barriers to employment, education, and healthcare
  • Federal policies promote poverty and dependence
  • Lack of ADA compliance in public sphere
  • Eugenics movements
  • Inaccessible design
  • Societal perceptions of disabled individuals

Interpersonal ableism:

Interpersonal ableism is ableism that occurs during interactions and relationships with a disabled individual. Here are some examples:

  • Using baby-talk
  • Downplaying others feelings and experiences
  • Ignoring disability in conversation all together
  • Assuming you know their needs and wants
  • Viewing disability as pitiful
  • Speaking for a disabled individual
  • Asking invasive questions
  • Viewing disability as inspirational

Internalized ableism:

Internalized ableism occurs when a disabled person discriminated against themselves or other disabled individuals. This form of ableism occurs when a disabled individual feels as if they are a burden or a failure, due to systemic forms of ableism. There are many forms of internalized ableism:

  • Believing you don’t need accommodations or help
  • Needing to prove your disability to others or yourself
  • Thinking that you have to do something inspirational since you’re disabled
  • Believing you are a burden
  • Thinking you are sexually and romantically undesirable


Intersectionality is a term coined by Kimberlee Crenshaw which understands the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, gender, nationality and disability as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and independent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.

For example, a Disabled Queer Woman. The combination of these identities merge together to create a new group of experiences and unique set of social disadvantages.

Ableism is connected to, and intersections with, all forms of structural and systemic oppression stemming from systems that create and perpetuate inequality. White supremacy, colonialism, and capitalism cannot be extracted or isolated from disability and ableism. These systemic oppressions must be considered when discussing intersectionality and disability.