Creating Safer Learning Spaces: Ableist Microaggressions in Online Classrooms

Ableist microaggression comments including: Where is your mom? Can you do that by yourself? I do not want to disclose my disability. I am ignored. What happened to you? Are you really disabled?

“Most of the work out there in hate or harassment is on gender, sexuality, and race. Not disability. I want to bring in the voices of disabled people and how they experience discrimination because it’s currently overlooked.”

~Sharon Heung, Cornell University researcher

You may have heard of microaggressions. Ableist microaggressions are those that specifically impact people with disabilities. The impact of ableist microaggressions can be long-lasting and very destructive. One study (Ackerman-Barger, et al. 2021) found they can increase stress and depression while negatively impacting academic performance, including retention. It is imperative for instructional designers, educators, and online course facilitators to prevent, identify, and manage microaggressions to create safe learning environments for all students.


First, let us define disability, ableism, microaggression, and ableist microaggression to develop an understanding of what disabled students experience.

Disability The Americans for Disabilities Act defines disability as a legal term. The ADA defines a person with a disability as a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. This includes people with a record of such an impairment, even if they do not currently have a disability. It also includes individuals who do not have a disability but are regarded as having a disability.

Ableism is discrimination or prejudice against individuals with disabilities. Ableism is grounded in the assumption that people who are disabled need to have their disability cured or fixed. It also leads to stereotypes and generalizations of people with disabilities. Ableism takes many forms, and not all are intentional. Examples include:

Microaggression is subtle actions and comments that are typically unconscious and unintentional but express prejudice toward people in a marginalized or minority group.

Ableist microaggressions combine the attitudes and actions of ableism and microaggression to be specifically harmful to the disabled community. Heung et al. (2022) define ableist microaggressions as “subtle forms of discrimination that disabled people experience daily, perpetuating inequalities and maintaining their ongoing marginalization.”

While these definitions help to clarify the terms, in practice, it can be challenging to understand the impact of ableist microaggressions on people and to rethink our behaviors and communication to prevent them from occurring.

Why Ableist Microaggression Matters

According to Heung et al. (2022), ableist microaggressions “perpetuate inequalities, ableism, and stereotypes against disabled people while maintaining their ongoing marginalization” (p 1). Participants in Heung’s study acknowledged that patronizing and infantilizing comments were the most experienced types of ableist microaggressions. These include messages such as “You’re so inspirational” or “You’re doing this thing independently like that’s amazing….” Participants also reported ableist microaggressions, including:

Heung et al. (2022) found that participants reported long-term effects of receiving ableist microaggressions. The behaviors and comments impact self-esteem, self-perception, and confidence. In an interview, Heung explained what participants shared about the accumulation of ableist microaggressions over time. She said, “All the types of microaggressions that happen add up. It’s known that ableist microaggressions do have an effect on your health, your schoolwork, and your performance at school.”


Heung said participants in her study suggested education is a step everyone can take to learn more about ableist microaggressions and their impact. Learning more can help educators communicate clearly with their students about creating a learning environment for all students.

Another step is to provide educational resources to the person committing the ableist microaggressions. Vaishnav, S. & Wallace, D. (2022) suggest helping people differentiate between their good intentions and how harmful their behavior can be received. Education can also help us see our biases and how we can adjust our behavior.

There are other steps education professionals can take to mitigate ableist microaggressions in online classrooms.

Make Classrooms Accessible

Heung said participants view inaccessibility as a form of microaggression. She said, “The built environment is not built for the disabled.” Educators can use accessibility tools built into LMS systems. Canvas, Blackboard, D2L, and Moodle all offer accessibility support. But, educators need to go further and use headings, alt text, color contrast, video captions, and offer a variety of learning tools for students.

Be Mindful of Videos

Educators need to be mindful not to share or disclose a disability. Heung notes that some in the disabled community do not want to reveal their disability. Educators must also be cognizant of allowing students to advocate for themselves instead of making assumptions.

Be An Activist in the Classroom

As your awareness of ableist microaggression grows, you may see it more clearly in your online classrooms. Respond to the disabled with empathy and curiosity, not assumptions. Take an active stance by expressing disagreement, asking open-ended questions for clarity, and offering education. Finally, seek feedback from your students about how to make improvements for future classes.


Ackerman-Barger K, Jacobs NN, Orozco R, London M. Addressing microaggressions in academic health: A workshop for inclusive excellence. MedEdPORTAL. 2021;17:11103.

ADA National Network. (n.d.). What is the definition of disability under the ADA?

Heung, S. et al. (2022, October). Nothing micro about it: Examining ableist microaggressions on social media. ASSETS. Pp. 23-26.

Vaishnav, S. & Wallace, D. (2022). Navigating microaggressions in online learning environments. Journal of Technology in Counselor Education and Supervision. 2(2): 11-14.

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Angela Britcher

Angela Britcher is an instructional designer and content creator with The Babb Group. She is also an adjunct professor of business and communications.
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