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Ableism: The Causes and Consequences of Disability Prejudice

Below is an interview with Dr. Michelle Nario-Redmond, author of a new book, Ableism: The Causes and Consequences of Disability Prejudice (2019, Wiley-Blackwell).


Tell me a little about yourself! 

I’m a 55-year old Latina, first generation college student, and a Social Psychologist who graduated from the University of Kansas where Dr. Beatrice Wright taught the lessons of Kurt Lewin: No research without action.

You’re a professor of psychology at Hiram College specializing in disability studies, prejudice, and stereotyping. How did you get involved in disability studies? 

I came to disability studies in the late 1990s after hearing Professor Carol Gill speak on disability identity at a psychology conference. I found a very welcoming community of mentors through the Society of Disability Studies (including Simi Linton, Adrienne Asch, Devva Kasnitz, Anne Finger, Art Blaser, David Mitchell, Carrie Sandhal, Alison Kafer, Mark Sherry, Corbett O’Toole, Beth Haller—among so many others) who encouraged my research. Their work changed the landscape of my parenting, my scholarship and my professional goals. As a parent of a 24-year old proud disabled woman, I am grateful every day to those who came before me.


You have a new book out, Ableism: The Causes and Consequences of Disability Prejudice (2019, Wiley-Blackwell). Tell me about the history of the idea for this book. Was the end result what you imagined your book would be?

This book was the result of my hoarding of all the scientific literature on disability prejudice I could get my hands on, primarily for teaching purposes. I have long been interested in disentangling the multiple determinants and manifestations of ableist attitudes, and the seeming contradictions between hostile and benevolent reactions to those who differ from the norm. In 2012, after reviewing Dr. Roselyn Darling’s book Spoiled Identity: Self and Disability in a Changing Society, and was encouraged to propose a book of my own, though my own research was limited to studies on disability stereotypes, disability identity, higher education, and problems of disability simulation. At the time, I hadn’t thought about the prospect of summarizing the rich but fragmented literature on prejudice against disabled people, but I soon realized that this was a golden opportunity since there was no other book like it on the market. I began in 2014, and it took me five years to complete. The road of a solo book project is lonely but thankfully I had some amazing collaborators including Dr. Arielle Silverman, who co-wrote the chapter: Contending with Ableism. Every chapter of this book is infused with disabled voices who shared their experiences with multiple forms of ableism; however, this particular chapter focuses on the effects of ableism, and patterns of response that range from internalized stigma to collective action for disability rights. My disabled students were also instrumental, particularly in the creation of each chapter’s Activist Pages where readers can find resources for change.

With your background in psychology, what led you to examine ableism? How is your understanding of ableism through a psychological lens different from other ways of analyzing it? 

Frankly, I was frustrated that my discipline of social psychology (which focuses on how the social context affects individual perceptions and actions) had almost exclusively studied disability as a stigmatized trait associated with particular impairments like blindness, paraplegia or autism. By failing to conceptualize disability as a minority group membership, questions about ableism toward disabled people as a whole were just not being considered. Specifically, the psychology of prejudice was not articulating disability as a disadvantaged minority status influenced by intergroup power dynamics and the material environment in ways that shape ableist attitudes, stereotypic beliefs, and discriminatory policies.

Prejudice is so much more than negative attitudes that occur between individuals interacting—it depends on motivations that derive from belonging to particular groups of “us” and “them”. This is now changing as scholars begin to recognize that our understanding is incomplete without an analysis of the experiences of disabled people as a group to uncover the broader social and political implications of ableism and its effects on the well-being and advancement of people with disabilities, including those with mental health conditions.

My training as a social psychologist of intergroup relations (e.g., racism, sexism) has positioned me to leverage theories and research at the intersections of disability studies, social, and community psychology. As the legislative landscape has changed since the Americans with Disabilities Act so have the dynamics shifted between disabled and nondisabled groups, altering the forms that ableism can take. In addition to fear and curiosity, we also see inspirational reactions, jealous envy, and the use of specific beliefs to justify confinements and other dehumanizing actions. An emerging field, “the Social Psychology of Disability” is beginning to explore the cognitive mechanisms, myths, values, attributions, and emotional reactions that lead to biased intergroup judgments, group identity formation, self-stereotyping, and the tensions between interpersonal liking and collective action for change.  

For people unfamiliar with ableism, how would you describe it and what are some examples of it that you’ve personally encountered and observed? 

I prefer a simple definition as the prejudice and discrimination toward individuals and groups simply because they are disabled. Similar to definitions of prejudice more broadly, the ABC’s of ableism include our Affective, emotional and attitudinal reactions; the Behaviors, actions, practices and policies that discriminate, and the Cognitive beliefs, stereotypes and ideologies that go beyond general negativity. Here’s an illustration from chapter 1: “Imagine meeting someone with a disability: if feelings of disgust or pity emerge (affect), one may offer to help or simply avoid interacting (behavior) – especially if one believes the person with a disability needs assistance or can’t think clearly (cognition). I’ve observed ableism in both hostile and benevolent forms which I describe more below.

How does ableism intersect and relate to other forms of oppression such as racism, sexism, ageism, classism, and homophobia (among others)? What is important to keep in mind when talking about one form of prejudice and how they are linked to others?  

There is power in numbers and it is critical that we move beyond a politics of disability that fails to recognize how the manifestations and solutions to ableism are complicated by race, gender, sexuality, class, age, and other minority statuses. We need to be forging more alliances and engaging with other civil rights movements including Black Lives Matter, AIM, Trans and Gay Pride, Grey Panthers, and #MeToo to encourage more voices at the table. There is always a tension between goals of inclusivity and the maintenance of subcultural community spaces, but disability is everywhere, and a group anyone can join, disability has the power to unite if people can get beyond their fears and misconceptions. We need to be asking: who is not at the table, and why not, and actively reach out to incorporate and complicate our analyses if we ever hope to represent the diversity of the human condition, and the complexities of ableism when experienced by those who are also confronted by homophobia, racism, and the particularities of different impairments as well.

Based on your research and writing, what are some of the major ways ableism operates in society?  

I see it every day when people neglect to consider that disabled people are everywhere yet fail to plan for their participation. I see it in classrooms that show films without captioning with desks that don’t move; at campus events held upstairs with no elevator access; at facilities that illegally exclude service animals; at conferences that serve meals without options for those with allergies, chemical sensitivities or addictions; I see it in funding campaigns that acquiesce to donors who just don’t want to innovate for accessibility; I see it in families that marginalize disabled members by failing to dismantle barriers that exclude them from the kitchen, the yard, the living room. Institutionalized forms of ableism also exist in policies that fail to make public simple accommodations that are possible; that require complaints and lawsuits to be filed before change is considered; I see it in misrepresentations that present disabled people in the media as tragic and suffering or as brave and inspirational for doing everyday things. We need to be exposing discriminatory practices that continue to restrict, restrain and incarcerate people on the basis of disability, sharing information about disability hate crimes that often go unreported; we need to challenge laws that prevent disabled people from voting, parenting, accessing health care and identifying transportation options; we need to demand life-sustaining procedures for evacuation during emergencies and for power outages.

What do you hope people will learn about ableism after reading your book? 

People will come away with an increased appreciation that we all have hidden (and not so hidden) biases; we all neglect to consider how our privileges make us complicit in perpetuating inequality. But instead of feeling guilty or threatened by this, the book offers concrete suggestions for how to reimagine what’s possible for individuals, families and organizations to change false assumptions, to reach out to representatives, and to reduce prejudice in our classrooms and beyond. The book offers many strategies and resources for how to do this from confronting ableism directly as allies and insiders to recruiting disabled leaders and informants, to getting involved politically, through social media or by making a commitment to change something in one’s sphere of influence. 

Is there anything else you’d like to share with me?  

I am very fortunate to be invited to speak at a congressional briefing next month, and to serve as a keynote speaker at next year’s Disability Matters conference. I would be honored to visit other organizations or to serve on a panel with other activists and academics working in solidarity to address contemporary manifestations ableism and it’s undoing.


Latina woman with short black and grey hair, wearing brown-rimmed glasses and yellow sweater with white polka dots smiles widely at her desk.
Latina woman with short black and grey hair, wearing brown-rimmed glasses and yellow sweater with white polka dots smiles widely at her desk.

Michelle R. Nario-Redmond is a Professor of Psychology at Hiram College, specializing in stereotyping, prejudice, and disability studies. She earned her Ph.D. in Social Psychology from the University of Kansas, and her research focuses on group identification and political advocacy; strategies of responding to prejudice; and the unintended consequences of simulating disability. A member of the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues and the Society of Disability Studies, Michelle is passionate about social justice, inclusive pedagogy, Universal-Design, increasing access to higher education. She enjoys collaborating with students and presenting with her daughter on disability arts and culture.


Social Psychology Network:

Twitter: @nariomr

Facebook: Michelle Reyna

Instagram:  @swapmeet_mama


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