Racism and Ableism

November 10, 2016 | Isabella Kres-Nash

Racism and ableism are often thought of as parallel systems of oppression that work separately to perpetuate social hierarchy. Not only does this way of looking at the world ignore the experiences of people of color with disabilities, but it also fails to examine how race is pathologized in order to create racism. Meaning that society treats people of color in specific ways to create barriers, and these poor conditions create disability. The concept of disability has been used to justify discrimination against other groups by attributing disability to them.

There are countless examples across history of black and brown bodies being pathologized in order to perpetuate white supremacy, and although there are examples of this across race, this piece will focus on the experiences of black people. An analysis of how black bodies have been pathologized in this country should begin with American slavery. The existence of the economic system of slavery relied on the social idea that African Americans lacked sufficient intelligence to participate or compete on an equal basis in society with white Americans. This idea was confirmed with the creation of several diseases specific to Black people. Drapetomania, for example, was a condition that caused slaves to run away “as much a disease of the mind as any other species of mental alienation.”[1] Similarly, Dysaesthesia Aechiopis—a unique ailment differing “from every other species of mental disease, as it is accompanied with physical signs or lesions of the body”—resulted in a desire to avoid work and generally to cause mischief.[2] These are only two examples of disability being created by people in power in order to preserve social order, and yet there are foundational.

Not only have specific disabilities been created to facilitate racism, but disability has also been used to punish those who seek to dismantle it. One historic example of this comes from the island of Malaga Maine. Prior to 1912 the island was settled by both white and black families who lived together in peace. In 1912, however, the Governor evicted all 45 families from Malaga Island. The residents of this racially mixed community were said to be feeble-minded and many were sent to the Maine School for Feeble-Minded in Pownal, Maine. The state sponsored removal of the Malaga residents illustrates how disability is used to justify institutional racism. The deliberate connection of miscegenation and feeble-mindedness in Malaga allowed the state to maintain the status quo.

Time and time again society has been quick to call out disability in communities of color while simultaneously failing to acknowledge that the state is directly responsible for the very environments that have created staggering numbers of disability. Institutional racism has cut of those communities from resources so that disability cannot be recognized. This is why mental illness, for example, is particularly common among communities of color. African Americans are diagnosed with schizophrenia at much higher rates and are also given antipsychotic medications more frequently and in higher doses. They are also more often institutionalized involuntarily, in part because racial stereotypes affect psychiatrists’ assessments of their “dangerousness.”[3] This phenomenon illustrates why medical models of disability is inadequate, only social stereotypes can explain why black bodies are pathologized such extreme ways.  Continuing with an examination of the same mental illness, a 1993 study “found that 79 percent of African Americans in a public-sector hospital were diagnosed with schizophrenia, compared with 43 percent of whites.”[4] Given some of the previous historical examples of black people pathologized it is logical to infer that these levels of schizophrenia diagnoses might further institutional racism. The use of racial stereotypes to inform diagnosis has had a profound impact on the lives of people of color.

To summarize, institutional racism has pathologized brown bodies in order to maintain the status quo while simultaneously failing to acknowledge that the state is responsible for creating environments where disability is inevitable. As a result, ableism will always exist if racism exists because it is a tool of racism, creating societal barriers for people of color creates disability. The social model of disability that the disability community is embracing by definition includes people of color, and yet the disability community is not inclusive of the struggles of people of color. Understanding the connection between these two systems of oppression should unite the disability and people of color communities, and yet little is known about this history. This does negate the experiences of people of color with disabilities, as there are many (myself included) who identify as both a person of color and as a person with a disability. It is true, however, that both these communities’ movements for civil rights have existed in primarily separate spheres. Understanding the historical connection between racism and ableism should lead to a connected effort to disable these systems of oppression. The ultimate goal of meaningful inclusion for the disability community will never be fully realized until black and brown people are also free.


[1] Price, Margaret. “Defining Mental Disability.” The Disability Studies Reader. By Lennard J. Davis. New York: Routledge, 1997. 298. Print.

[2] McCoy McDeid , Reyma. Sherwin, Liz. “IL Movement and African Americans: Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow.” 2016.

[3] Mollow, Anna. ““When Black Women Start Going on Prozac …” The Politics of Race, Gender, and Emotional Distress.” The Disability Studies Reader. By Lennard J. Davis. New York: Routledge, 1997. 415. Print.

[4] Ibid.


* * *

Isabella Kres-Nash was a 2016 AAPD Summer Intern who interned with Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) and the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee. She is currently a junior at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, studying political science and history.

Our Sponsors