Disability is a natural facet of the human experience that transcends all demographics. Mahdia Lynn provides a primer on this necessary conversation. Art by Sarah Epperson.




From the beginning of history and far into the future, there have been disabled people in society. Today, disabled people are a part of every community and demographic in the world-across race, gender, nationality, sexuality, class, faith, or anything you can think of. One in five Americans are living with disability, yet we are rarely seen in media, politics, faith communities or activism. Why is that?

Mahdia Lynn

Terms & Definitions

disabilityLoss of Function at the level of the whole person, which may include inability to communicate or to perform mobility, activities of daily living, or necessary vocational or avocational activities. (Definition by the World Health Organization)
disability (legal term)A physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity. (Definition from the Americans with Disabilities Act)
DisabledAdjective describing a person with a disability.
mental illnessMental illnesses are health conditions involving changes in thinking, emotion or behavior (or a combination of these). Mental illnesses are associated with distress and/or problems functioning in social, work or family activities. (Definition by the American Psychiatric Association)
psychiatric disabilityAnother term referring to mental Illness that substantially limits one or more major life activities.
intellectual or developmental disabilityDisability characterized by significant limitations in both intellectual functioning and in adaptive behavior, which covers many everyday social and practical skills.  (Definition from the American Association for Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities)
physical disabilityDisability affecting one’s mobility, strength, dexterity, stamina, or affecting executive or bodily functions (such as breathing, walking, or fine motor function.)
mobility aidAny object that helps a person with mobility or take part in everyday living activities. Examples include a walking cane, a wheelchair, crutches or walker.
chronic illnessA disease or condition which does not have a cure and lasts a person’s entire life.
degenerative / progressive illnessa disease or condition that progresses, or gets worse, over time.
accessibilityRefers to the design of products, devices, services, or environments for people with disabilities. The concept of accessible design ensures both "direct access" (i.e. unassisted) and "indirect access" meaning compatibility with a person's assistive technology (for example, computer screen readers). (Definition from disabled-world.com)
institutionalizationBeing held (voluntarily or against one’s will) in a psychiatric hospital, nursing home, or other institution. When disabled people are denied freedom or agency, we are usually relegated to out-of-sight institutions.
Home CareCaring for disabled people in our own homes rather than being institutionalized. Home care gives disabled people more freedom and independence, and is often less expensive than institutionalization.

Political & Cultural Terms

person-first languageReferring to an individual first when referring to disability, for example referring to group as “people with disabilities” (or PWD) or individual, for example, “person with autism”.
identity-first languagePerspective considering “disabled” a part of one’s identity, and referring to group as “disabled people” or the individual, for example, “autistic person”.
neurodiversityThe perspective that neurological conditions such as autism, ADHD, and many other conditions defined as psychiatric or developmental disability are a natural part of human diversity rather than a problem needing fixing.
Mad PridePerspective that mental illness specifically is a natural part of human diversity and worth celebrating.
Crip theoryAn “insider term” centering disabled experience and empowering disabled people to celebrate diversity of embodiment and the human experience.
able bodied / able mindedAn adjective referring to people currently living without disability.
temporarily able bodiedAnother way of referring to non-disabled people, considering the idea that ability is not a permanent condition and disability can affect anyone in time.
ableismThe systematic devaluing of disabled lives and privileging of able-bodied and able-minded people over others.
Disability Justice / Disability PowerA political movement to empower disabled people by advocating for civil rights and promoting independence, agency and dignity for all disabled people.

Historical Overview

Before the disability rights movement there were few civil rights in place for people with disabilities. Direct targets of eugenics programs, disabled people were pushed out of society, denied access to education or housing, forced into institutions, even sterilized. Disabled people were at best left behind by society-at worst, subjected to the cruelty of oppression.

The modern Disability Rights movement was born in the civil rights era of the 60’s. Campaigns in Washington putting pressure on the White House led to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The Rehabilitation Act secured accessibility for disabled people the federal sphere. Later, the creative direct action campaigns by organizations like ADAPT led to the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, which secured rights for disabled people in the private sector. The ADA didn’t just advance civil rights for disabled people. It trained an entire movement of experienced, dedicated activists with a knack for creative direct action, and would affect the landscape of American activism for good.

Disability Justice Today

There is a war being enacted against the Americans with Disabilities Act by conservative politicians. Several legislative efforts have passed in recent years to weaken the ADA, and the current attack on health care has disabled people in the crosshairs yet again.
The summer of 2017 was full of images of disabled Americans being violently arrested while demonstrating against politicians working to dismantle the Affordable Care Act. Once again, it was the creative high-profile actions of disabled activists which protected the rights of all Americans.

The movement towards freedom for disabled Americans continues today. Politicians and activists are working on passage of the Disability Integration Act which will protect the civil rights of Americans who need Long Term Services and Supports, who are far too often shoved into institutions where they are stripped of agency and basic civil rights.

Dis / Ability Privilege Check Worksheet

Use this list to think critically about your privilege in relation to your ability. Make a mark for each item that applies to you and continue to the discussion questions on the final page. Created by Mahdia Lynn.

Select the text below to view or download the list

Dis – Ability Privilege Check

View the Dis / Ability Privilege Check Worksheet

Discussion Questions

  1. How did it feel to go through this list?
  2. Are there things in this list you hadn’t thought about before?
  3. Is there anything missing from this list?
  4. What other privileges may able-bodied and neurotypical people have that others don’t?

Meet the Contributor

speech headshot cropped (1)Mahdia Lynn is an organizer and faith leader centering LGBTQIA+ Muslim advocacy, disability justice and prison abolition work. A prolific community organizer; she is the founder and executive director of Masjid al-Rabia, a national coordinator with the Believers Bail Out and a citywide leader with the Grassroots Alliance for Police Accountability and the Coalition for Police Contract Accountability. She currently lives in Chicago.