Inclusive Language Series: Ableism & Universal Design

This piece primarily uses person-first language and 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.

The Future is Accessible (TFA)

If you are interested in connecting within community and providing more awareness, connect with this student organization. It is a disability rights & pride initiative advocating for equity and accessibility on college campuses with an intersectional lens. Current goals include developing a proposal for the creation of a Disability Cultural Center on campus, advocating for policy reassessment pertaining to accommodation compliance, as well as fostering a community and affinity space for students with disabilities. 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

  • February 14: Valentine’s Day is a Western Christian feast day honoring one or two early saints named Valentinus. This holiday is typically associated with romantic love and celebrated by people expressing their love with gifts
  • February 15: Parinirvana Day (or Nirvana Day) is the commemoration of Buddha’s death at the age of 80, when he reached the zenith of Nirvana; February 8 is an alternate date of observance
  • February 18: Lailat al Miraj, a Muslim holiday that commemorates the prophet Muhammad’s nighttime journey from Mecca to the “Farthest Mosque” in Jerusalem, where he ascended to heaven, was purified, and given the instruction for Muslims to pray five times daily. Note that in the Muslim calendar, a holiday begins on the sunset of the previous day, so observing Muslims will celebrate Lailat al Miraj starting at sundown on February 17