Living with Chronic Pain

The Impact of Ableism on Health Care


What is ableism?

Ableism is defined as any prejudice, bias or discrimination that is targeted toward disabled people. It is a set of beliefs that favors able-bodied individuals and discriminates against disabled individuals. Ableists may treat those with chronic pain or other disabilities differently, and often negatively.

Ableism and health care

Ableism can occur on an institutional level in the health care system. Ironically, the system that should help individuals who experience pain and sickness frequently causes difficulties for disabled people. Individuals who are disabled may experience a variety of barriers to health care, such as practitioners who are inexperienced in the treatment and prejudice of disabled individuals.

Placing blame

Many physicians downplay symptoms and do not believe the level of pain experienced. Rather than ordering tests to confirm a pain condition, certain symptoms are not taken seriously but blamed on a person’s disability. The disabled people may receive low-quality care or possibly be left untreated for other existing conditions. Certain physicians also tend to blame a disability on lifestyle choices, while giving vague advice about nutrition and physical activity. Although a healthy lifestyle may help, a disabled persons’ access may be limited, especially due to the cost.


The health care system may underestimate the quality of life for disabled individuals. This can lead to limited or excluded treatment options. Oftentimes, able-bodied people associate disability with suffering and death, making it difficult to see a reason for living a disabled life. Feeding tubes, wheelchairs, respirators, and other assistive devices become identified with having a low-quality of life, when in fact, they provide the user with freedom.

Excluding and depriving

Ableism in the health care system can also appear in the form of depriving disabled individuals of their independence. Health care providers may undermine the decisions of their disabled clients. They may not listen to their experience, encourage certain treatments, or suggest that a cognitively disabled person may not know better about their own body or treatment. This excludes disabled people from their own treatment plans and leads to negative overall health outcomes.

Additional sources: Medical News Today, American Medical Association Journal of Ethics, and United Spinal Association.

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