Ableism in academia

Inaccessibility, ableism, racism and sexism have always been core pillars of academia. In Academic Ableism (2017) Jay T. Dolmage illustrates the systemic nature of academic ableism. He discusses the racist, ableist, eugenic character of both historical and current academic culture.

According to Dolmage, ableism has been created and maintained through higher education. Throughout its history, higher education invented, applied, and cemented disability as a negative concept, as a form of disqualification, and as grounds for discrimination. Disabled people have been objects of study and research resources, but not purveyors of knowledge on disability. Disability has been and is routinely treated as a problem in need of a solution, ‘and not as an “important form of critical knowledge production within the university.”’

Since the 1970s, disability studies has emerged as a discipline in which such configurations are critically challenged. However, Dolmage stresses that ‘it is essential to understand that disability studies has emerged into higher education, the location so powerfully responsible for the suppression of disabled people.’ In his book, Dolmage ‘moves back and forth between a perspective from this “emergence” of disability studies, a perspective in which we can use disability studies to effectively critique education, and a perspective in which disability is still actively submerged or controlled within academia, in which there is no more ableist location than the university.’

Here, Dolmage’s distinction between ‘ableism’ and ‘disablism’ is important. Disablism negatively constructs disability, and promotes the different or unequal treatment of people because of their actual or presumed disabilities. ‘Ableism, on the other hand, instead of situating disability as bad and focusing on that stigma, positively values able-bodiedness. In fact, ableism makes able-bodiedness and able-mindedness compulsory. Disablism constructs disability as abject, invisible, disposable, less than human, while able-bodiedness is represented as at once ideal, normal and the mean of default.’ Dolmage argues that while disablism cannot be fully disconnected from ableism, ‘academia powerfully mandates able-bodiedness and able-mindedness, as well as other forms of social and communicative hyperability, and this demand can be defined as ableism’.

The book Ableism in Academia: Theorising experiences of disabilities and chronic illnesses in higher education (2020), edited by Nicole Brown and Jennifer Leigh, shows how this academic ableism is rooted in neoliberal values of productivity, effectiveness and excellence, geared towards tangible outcomes and outputs that support the prestige economy of academia. In an institutional context where perfectionism, productivity and excellence are internalized, the standard is a ‘fully able and abled being.’ Matters such as physical and mental accessibility are intertwined with the exclusionary mentalities that are promoted within academia.

Even though rhetorically, many universities have started discussing improving access in disability and diversity programmes and initiatives, according to Dolmage a few facts are irrefutable: ‘Students with disabilities are still kept out of the university in large numbers. Disabled students will face steep steps as they work to attain an education. The programs and initiatives that are developed in the name of diversity and inclusion do not yet deliver tangible means of addressing the ableism inherent in higher education.’

It is this systemic ableism in academia that our network wants to address. Building on the framework of disability and feminist, queer and crip mentality (Kafer, 2013), our network hopes to create a space where everyone can share their experiences, and aims to ‘crip’ the academic world by relating these experiences to their political and institutional contexts. Here, we pay attention to physical, mental, intellectual, social and other forms of inaccessibility, and the ways these are interlinked.


Jay T. Dolmage, Academic Ableism (University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor 2017)

Nicole Brown, Jennifer Leigh, Ableism in Academia: Theorising experiences of disabilities and chronic illnesses in higher education (UCL Press, London 2020)

Alison Kafer, Feminist, Queer, Crip (Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 2013).