reading notes: ableism (a brief History of the emergence of a term)

I was curious about the emergence of the term ableism. When did it come into common parlance as a critique of the attitudes and structures that value and normalize able-bodiedness and able-mindedness and that devalue and stigmatize disability and disabled people? As I suspected, the term is recent. According to Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, the first known use of the word ableism, defined as “discrimination or prejudice against individuals with disabilities,” was 1981. A Google books Ngram search pointed me to a book published that year: Yvonne Duffy’s …all things are possible, published by A.J. Garvin and Associates in Ann Arbor, Michigan. From the Ngram graph, we can see a slow growth in use of the term from 1981 to about 1996, followed by a brief plateau until about 2001 when the use of the term rises significantly, continuing up to the present moment.

[Google Books Ngram graph for the word ableism, showing the first appearance in a book in 1981.]

One other interesting detail from the definition in Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary: in “Recent Examples on the Web” of uses of the word, five out of the eight examples are from articles published in the immediate aftermath of the John Fetterman-Mehmet Oz debate on October 25, 2022, in which Fetterman used closed-captioning to accommodate an auditory processing disorder following a stroke. I mention this because it shows that Fetterman’s Senate campaign following his stroke led to widespread conversations about what ableism is and how it structures social interactions. Disability activists and scholars had long used the term, but in 2022, forty years after the term first emerged, the use of ableism would become prominent in mainstream media coverage of Fetterman’s successful run for U.S. Senate.

[Recent example sentences from Merriam-Webster dictionary’s definition of ableism, showing five sentences from news articles published between October 25 and October 27, 2022, all covering the debate between Pennsylvania Senate candidates John Fetterman and Mehmet Oz.]

Let’s look back to how ableism appears in 1981. I admit I had never come across Duffy’s …all things are possible before. It is a fascinating book about disability and sexuality that Duffy explains in the introduction she “conceived in the summer of 1976, near the end of a long but stormy love relationship with a fellow writer who remarked casually one night as he was going out to see another woman, ‘You think and talk so much about your sexuality as a disabled woman you ought to write about it’” (11). Duffy doesn’t use the term ableism herself and it is only used once in the text in a quotation from one of her interviewees. A term Duffy does use extensively is differently abled, which she says she first came across in literature sponsored by the “We Want the Music Collective” at the Michigan Women’s Music Festival. She enthusiastically endorses differently abled as a “wonderful phrase to describe those of us who, because of physical limitations, have learned so many other ways of carrying out everyday activities!” (12). 

[Cover of a library copy of Yvonne Duffy’s …all things are possible from 1981. A photo of a woman’s naked torso framed by a wheelchair wheel with spokes radiating out from the center.]

According to Duffy, differently abled was coined by the We Want the Music Collective and the Tucson, Arizona lesbian community. Since its coinage, of course, there have been many critiques from disabled writers and thinkers of the use of differently abled instead of disabled. In Waist-high in the World, Nancy Mairs humorously sums up some problems with the term, dismissing it as “mealy-mouthed.” Mairs prefers the more accurate term cripple to identify her own experience with a progressive form of multiple sclerosis, even as she knows others might not agree with her preference. That Duffy uses the term differently abled throughout …all things are possible instead of disabled person or person with a disability, which is the terminology used by the people she interviews, is cringe-inducing reading now. Nonetheless, Duffy’s book offers insight into how disabled people are often perceived as asexual and denied complex personhood and she provides numerous stories of disabled sex and sexuality to counteract this form of ableism.

The word ableism appears in Duffy’s text in a chapter called “Womyn Loving Womyn (Lesbianism).” Duffy first discusses with her interviewees their attitudes toward and experiences of lesbian sex and sexuality. She then tells her reader that she revised her questionnaire to answer the specific questions “How do women treat other women? Are women more understanding of each other’s specific physical condition in sexual situations?” and distributed the new questionnaire at the Disabled Lesbian Conference held in August 1981, following the Michigan Women’s Music Festival (157). Two women responded—Jane, a 33-year-old art therapist from New York, and Ruth, a 35-year-old psychologist. As is the case throughout …all things are possible, Duffy also introduces Jane and Ruth by briefly describing their disabilities. Jane “has amyotonia congenita and uses a motorized wheelchair” (157) and Ruth has epilepsy, and Duffy adds that their experiences in the lesbian community have differed partly because Jane’s disability is visible, and thus often more stigmatizing than Ruth’s. 

It is Ruth who uses the term ableism in a response to a question about her “level of comfort with the lesbian community in comparison with the straight,” as Duffy puts it (160). Ruth explains that she felt “more accepted by the lesbian community probably because that is where I am most comfortable. I have gained considerable respect for my therapeutic expertise among the mental health community but am not usually very comfortable in social settings with many of these people” (160). Duffy continues to quote Ruth about how she “perceived that she is seen by other lesbians ‘as a lesbian with a strong liking for women’s culture, with an interest in our herstory, present and future possibilities….The degree of ableism I encounter is about the same in both communities’” (160). The ellipsis is in the original and Duffy doesn’t engage with Ruth’s use of the term ableism nor with her point about its presence in both lesbian and straight communities. Thus, ableism first appears as an analytic concept within a lesbian feminist community, even as it nonetheless operates as a structuring structure of disabled experience in that community as in straight communities. This is the force of ableism. Identifying it by name is only the beginning of the process of counteracting it.