Disability Justice

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The Disability Justice toolkit was developed by Mahdia Lynn and includes the following: an introductory overview, a list of key terms and definitions, a list of organizations, links to additional resources on the topic, an accompanying presentation, and activity worksheets.

Created by Mahdia Lynn for Equality for HER

Table of Contents

Visual Guide


Disability Power, Disability Justice: Concepts Explained

Disability is a natural facet of the human experience that transcends all demographics. 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?


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.


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 heath 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.

Terms & Definitions

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Terms are as defined by Mahdia Lynn unless otherwise specified.

A. Technical Terms

Disability: Loss 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)

Disabled: Adjective describing a person with a disability.

Mental illness: Mental 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 disability: Another term referring to mental Illness that substantially limits one or more major life activities.

Intellectual or Developmental disability: Disability 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 disability: Disability affecting one’s mobility, strength, dexterity, stamina, or affecting executive or bodily functions (such as breathing, walking, or fine motor function.)

Mobility aid: Any 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 illness: A disease or condition which does not have a cure and lasts a person’s entire life.

Degenerative / progressive illness: a disease or condition that progresses, or gets worse, over time.

Accessibility: Refers 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)

Institutionalization: Being 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 Care: Caring 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.

B. Political & Cultural Terms

Person-first language: Referring 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 language: Perspective considering “disabled” a part of one’s identity, and referring to group as “disabled people” or the individual, for example, “autistic person”.

NOTE: The difference between person-first and identity-first language is covered in the CONCEPTS EXPLAINED section.

Neurodiversity: The 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 Pride: Perspective that mental illness specifically is a natural part of human diversity and worth celebrating.

Crip theory: An “insider term” centering disabled experience and empowering disabled people to celebrate diversity of embodiment and the human experience.

Able bodied / able minded: An adjective referring to people currently living without disability.

Temporarily able bodied: Another way of referring to non-disabled people, considering the idea that ability is not a permanent condition and disability can affect anyone in time.

Ableism: The systematic devaluing of disabled lives and privileging of able-bodied and able-minded people over others.

Disability Justice / Disability Power: A political movement to empower disabled people by advocating for civil rights and promoting independence, agency and dignity for all disabled people.


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The Dis/Ability Privilege Check

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.