What Is Ableism?

In this lesson, students will share what they already know about physical disabilities, stereotypes regarding people with disabilities and issues of fairness and accessibility. They will start learning vocabulary for talking about ableism.
Grade Level


Students will

  • acquire vocabulary for talking about physical disabilities and ableism;
  • identify key features of movements for accessibility and equity; and
  • think critically about their own knowledge base and questions with regard to disabilities.
Essential Questions
  • What is a physical disability?
  • What big issues or problems do people with physical disabilities face?
  • What kinds of work and activism help people with physical disabilities gain rights?
  • Chart paper
  • Markers
  • Notebooks
  • One or more of the following children's books: Jane Cowen Fletcher, Mama Zooms; Eloise Greenfield, Darlene;Todd Parr, It's Okay to Be Different; Jeanne Willis, Susan Laughs; Gary Clemente, Cosmo Gets an Ear. (Note: A comprehensive list of children's books organized by type of disability can be found here.)

This lesson is part of the series, Picturing Accessibility: Art, Activism and Physical Disabilities.


ableism [ EY buhl iz uhm ] (noun) prejudice against a person or group of people because of a disability

physical disability [ FIZ i Kuhl dis uh BIL uh tee ] (noun) something about a person's body that gets in the way of his doing what is expected of him by the world around him

accessibility [ ek sess uh BIL uh tee ] (noun) the quality of being possible to get into, use, make use of

equity [ EK wih tee ] (noun) the quality of being fair, impartial, even, just



Chart ideas shared with the class by students. (Note: If students bring up emotional and learning disabilities, allow them to share their ideas about how these issues are similar and/or different, and keep track of their comments and questions to address or develop. Explain that these issues are important, but in this lesson you are thinking particularly about physical disabilities.)

  1. Explain to students that you will be talking about issues facing people with disabilities. Ask students to share what they already know about disabilities. If they are hesitant to answer, prompt them with the following questions
    • What is a disability?
    • Who decides whether something counts as a disability?
    • What problems might or might not people with disabilities face?
  2. Divide students into four groups and give each group a vocabulary word from the Glossary section. Provide students with the definitions as well. Have groups spend about 5 minutes discussing the meanings of their words, using them in sentences and thinking of questions they might have about their words. Then challenge them to come up with a way to present and explain their words to the other groups. Have students come back together and present their words. As groups present, allow other students to ask questions and discuss any complicated issues that arise. For example, make sure students understand that there is nothing shameful in discussing disabilities. If you think that students are prepared to understand this concept, you can also explain and discuss the idea that disabilities are in society and in a lack of accessibility, rather than in individuals themselves.
  3. Read aloud the children's book you selected for the lesson. As you read, ask students to jot in their notebook ideas or stereotypes about disabilities the author might be challenging. Encourage students to record their own opinions, then pause and allow them to turn and talk to partners,. When the book is complete, lead the class in a discussion based on their observations.
  4. Ask students to share what questions they have about disabilities, accessibility and equity. Chart their questions, and remind them that no question is too simple. After students are finished sharing questions, have them brainstorm ways they might independently research answers to their questions, and chart these next to the questions. Leave the chart on display for future reference.
  5. To close the lesson, have students go around in a circle. Each student should use one of the vocabulary words in a sentence or question that makes sense to them.


Additional Resources

For a comprehensive and detailed account of disability rights movements, see Joseph Shapiro (1994), No Pity. A few guides for talking to children about disabilities can be found here and here.

Activities address the following Common Core Anchor Standards for Language Arts and Social Studies: CCSS: L.3.4, L.3.6, RL.3.1, RL.3.7

Extension Activity

Challenge your students to research the questions they developed during the lesson using school libraries, media labs and public libraries, as well as human resources in the surrounding community. They can share what they learn in a future class. They might even make posters or other visual displays that the rest of the school community can use to expand its knowledge base.