Inclusive Language Series: Ableism & Universal Design

Note: we wanted to acknowledge that there were terms used when this piece was originally shared that had a significant impact on individuals within community and caused harm. We want to provide updates, corrections and additional resources. The specific terminology we are correcting is the use of the phrase “differently-abled.” Since the newsletter was sent out, we have become aware that this term is often used by non-disabled people to avoid the direct use of the word “disabled.” The absence of more accepted language reinforces a harmful stigma and needs to be addressed to fully advocate for the disabled community. It is important to listen and recognize when mistakes are made; we are always learning and unlearning.

As a part of our Inclusive Language Series, we are introducing some terms and resources for you to learn more about this semester in an effort to create more inclusive communities. This week’s terms are: Ableism and Universal Design. This piece primarily uses person-first language and we want to acknowledge that individuals within the community use identity-first language or other terms. Examples of person-first and identity-first language are listed below.

  • Person-first language: “People with disabilities”
  • Identity-first language: “Disabled person”

Ableism (n.):Refers to a pervasive system of discrimination and exclusion that oppresses disabled people who have mental, emotional or physical disabilities; is consists of prejudiced, discriminatory, and violent thoughts and actions towards people with disabilities.

People can have disabilities that are apparent and non-apparent. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Perceptual (ex. visual, hearing impairments, learning disabilities)
  • Illness/Health Conditions (ex. Multiple Sclerosis, Fibromyalgia)
  • Physical & Mobility (ex. Cerebal Palsy, neuropathy)
  • Developmental (ex. Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Autism Spectrum)
  • Psychiatric (ex. Chronic Depression, Anxiety, Bipolar Disorder)
  • Environmental (ex. Sensitivities to allergens and chemicals, light sensitivity, asthma)

The impact ableism has on people with disabilities is vast and includes microaggressions, bias, and systemic oppression.

Microaggression example: Seeing someone in a wheelchair and talking to them about how they are an inspiration to others for completing everyday routine tasks.

Bias example: A student with non-apparent disabilities asks for accommodations for a class but an instructor responds, “Well you don’t look like you have a disability…”

Systemic oppression example: Physical spaces that are not accessible to people who use mobility devices. Such as not having ramps or elevators, narrow hallways, and doors that are difficult to open. Especially when these facility issues exist in new or remodeled buildings.

When thinking about ableism, it’s important to avoid viewing individuals with disabilities from a deficit-based perspective.  People with disabilities are not deficient in comparison to non-disabled people. In most cases, any perceived deficiency is a result of being in an environment that is created with only the needs of able-bodied people in mind. This brings us to the concept of Universal Design.

Universal Design (n.):The process of making your program, experience, environment, or product, intuitive, accessible to, and usable by as many people as reasonably possible without the need for special adaptation or specialized design.

Universal Design is a process by which we put forth intentional effort to ensure spaces are accessible and support the success of all people. There may be some spaces or tasks that can not be fully accessible to people of all abilities and that’s okay. The point is for us to eliminate situations in which unnecessary barriers are being created or maintained that disadvantage people with disabilities.

To learn more about experiences at UW-Madison, read this article that was recently published in the Badger Herald.

If you are interested in connecting within your community and providing more awareness, connect with the student organization called BadgerSTART/DREAM, email:

McBurney Disability Resource Center

McBurney is a great resource for students in need of accommodations. Some of the accommodations available include alternative formats (audio, enlarged text, and Braille), sign language and captioning, note-taking, accessible transportation, housing accommodations, and more. There is a wide range of services offered to meet the diverse needs of students with disabilities. There are also resources to help instructors and other campus entities with components of universal design to maximize accessibility and reduce the need for students to submit accommodation requests.

UHS Mental Health Services

Another great resource on campus is UHS Mental Health Services. Students are able to engage in individual and/or group therapy as well as receive support for eating disorders and alcohol and substance use issues.

University Housing

We work with students with disabilities for different accommodations on a regular basis. If you’d like to connect with someone, please fill out our contact form.

Upcoming Holidays & Observances

  • April 24: Armenian Martyrs’ Day recognizes the genocide of approximately 1.5 million Armenians between 1915 and 1923 in Turkey.
  • April 29: Laylat al-Qadr is known as the Night of Power and is one of the holiest nights of the year for Muslim and is traditionally celebrated on the twenty-seventh day of Ramadan.