Disability Justice Self-Study Guide

Click on the links below to explore concepts of disability justice and accessibility.

Topics include physical, cognitive, intellectual, and mental disabilities; accessibility, broadly defined; ableism in education; and intersections of ableism with other systems of oppression.

Content warning: Mentions police brutality and murder, isolation.


  • Ableism: n. Discrimination against people with physical, intellectual, and/or psychiatric disabilities. Ableism, like many forms of discrimination, occurs in many different ways. The assumption that people with disabilities are completely helpless, for example, can manifest in strangers completing tasks for disabled people without asking for consent, referring to people as “suffering” from their condition(s), and using the term “wheelchair-bound” to refer to someone in a wheelchair. Often, attempts to make systems, architecture, technology, etc. more accessible either fall short or overcompensate, because yet another form of ableism excludes people with disabilities from positions of power, adequate resources, and the ability to make decisions for themselves and their community.Diversity and Inclusion
  • Dis/Ability: n. Refers to a person’s physical and/or mental capabilities in relation to the capacities deemed as valuable and ideal in a particular historical and cultural context. Physical and mental health are major components of dis/ability, and ability is not always explicitly visible to other people.
  • Healthism: n. A pervasive belief that health and wellness are both universally-desired properties and moral responsibilities of each individual, rather than a complex factor of embodiment influenced by social factors such as environment, disparities, institutional oppression, and other macro-level forces. As a result of healthism, fat people, disabled people, and those with chronic illnesses often become targets of blame for their medically-stigmatized physical and mental (dis)abilities and are therefore deemed lazy, irresponsible, and therefore unworthy of care and other basic resources. Medical providers and others who perpetuate healthism may suggest that lifestyle modifications like exercise and dieting can “fix” or “cure” chronic illnesses and/or disabilities rather than taking into account a person’s socioeconomic status, access to nutritious food and healthcare, and/or space and time in which to move their bodies.
  • Identity-First Language: n. Identity-First Language emphasizes disability as a valid, defining, and frequently permanent part of a person’s identity. Instead of saying “person with autism,” someone using IFL would say “autistic person” or “So-and-so is autistic.” IFL is especially common for those in the autistic/Autistic, deaf/Deaf, and blind/unsighted communities. Though some members of the community prefer Person-First Language (See below), IFL users consider that naming the identity as an integral part of their personhood shows solidarity with disabled communities and more firmly establishes that disability is not a disease or a source of suffering. Not everyone in disabled communities prefers Identity-First Language, however. It is important to respect each individual’s preference on how they would like to be referred.
  • Neurodiversity: n. The concept that all brains operate in different ways, and no two brains are exactly the same. Broadly speaking, neurodiversity acknowledges that all people are unique as a result of biological differences within the brain.
  • Neurodivergent: adj. A person who identifies as neurodivergent has a brain that diverges significantly from what many people and institutions consider “normal” and/or “standard” within any given cultural and historical context. Neurodivergence is a broad term that encompasses the experiences of many different people, including people with autism, dyslexia, and ADHD. Neurodivergence can also include depression, anxiety, PTSD, and other mental health conditions. Though frequently stigmatized, the diverse ways in which neurodivergent brains function and process information represent valid, naturally-occurring alternatives to the cognitive processes that contemporary medical and educational institutions tend to idealize.
  • Neurotypical: adj. A person who identifies as neurotypical has a brain that functions within what is considered “normal” and/or “standard” within any given cultural and historical context.“Neurotypical” is the opposite of “neurodivergent.”
  • Person-First Language: n. Person-First Language emphasizes the person instead of a person’s identity. Instead of saying “disabled people,” PFL would be “people with disabilities.” PFL is an attempt to combat the dehumanization of people who have disabilities. Not everyone in disabled communities prefers Person-First Language, however. It is important to respect each individual’s preference on how they would like to be referred.
  • Universal Design: An adaptive set of design practices and policies that make any environment, service, and/or product accessible to everyone regardless of age, size, and (dis)ability. Universal design should accommodate users with a wide range of abilities and disabilities, preferences, experiences, and knowledge. It should also communicate necessary information clearly, minimize consequences for user errors, require low physical effort, and provide appropriate size and space for users with varying mobility, height, etc. Some examples of application for Universal Design include education (Universal Design for Learning), architecture, and web design.


News Publications



Wong, Alice, Editor. Disability Visibility: First Person Stories from the Twenty-First Century. Vintage Books, 2020.
Dolmage, Jay. Academic Ableism: Disability and Higher Education. University of Michigan Press, 2017.
Piepzna-Samarasinha, Leah Lakshmi. Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice. Arsenal Pulp Press, 2018.
Price, Margaret. Mad at School: Rhetorics of Mental Disability and Academic Life. University of Michigan Press, 2011.

University Courses

  • Brown School Open Classroom: Inclusive Perspectives
  • AMCS 245 – Images of Disability in Film & Literature
  • AMCS 23755 – Disability, Quality of Life, & Community Responsibility
  • ANTHRO 319 – The Body in Brazil: Race, Representation, Ontologies
  • ANTHRO 3090 – Cultures of Health in Latin America
  • EDUC203B – Introduction to Education: Disability Law, Policy, and Institutional Implications
  • EDUC3885 – The Mental Health Crisis in Higher Education
  • FRENCH4550 – Intersectional Identities in Medieval France
  • FYP 130 – Beyond Boundaries: The Art of Medicine
  • GS (IAS) 1300 – The Art of Medicine
  • WGSS3203 – Bodies Out of Bounds: Feminist & Queer Disability Studies
  • WGSS33201 – Gender, Culture, and Madness

Get involved

  • Ability WashU: Ability was created to begin a conversation that has been missing from the Washington University campus until now. People with disabilities make up a substantial percentage of the world’s population. As a group, it is our goal to inform people about disability issues, and in general to work toward the inclusion of people with disabilities everywhere (From WUGO description).
  • Best Buddies: Best Buddies is the world’s largest organization dedicated to ending the social, physical and economic isolation of the 200 million people with IDD [Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities]. For individuals within this community, Best Buddies helps them form meaningful friendships with their peers, secure successful jobs, live independently, improve public speaking, self-advocacy and communications skills, and feel valued by society (From WUGO Description).
  • WUSTL Runway of Dreams: Made to Model is a project that includes education, design, and adaptable clothing awareness program. We are developing an adaptive fashion campaign centered around an annual adaptive fashion show on campus that will highlight individuals (“models”) with various disabilities from three community partners: St. Louis County Special School District (SSD), Variety the Children’s Charity, and KEEN St. Louis (From WUGO Description).