Share on: Linkedin

Intersectionality, Ableism, and Breaking the Glass Ceiling

Published: Monday May 22, 2023
alycia sitting on a table bench next to her wheelchair in a yellow jacket

People are complex, with multi-faceted attributes that make up who they are. Disability is included in this, but disability is also just one part of a person’s identity — a part that plays a role in shaping who they are but does not by any means define them solely.

“Why do we see disability differently from any other aspects of being human?” – Judith Heumann, a pioneer in the disability rights movement.

Recognizing the relationships that exist between disability, intersectionality, and the glass ceilings that have yet to be broken in multifamily are important concepts to understand in the context of creating a more inclusive society and workplace.

What Is Intersectionality?

Intersectionality describes how a person’s many marginalized identities work together to impact their life. An example of this is if someone is middle class, a person of color, disabled, and a woman, this combination of factors shapes a person’s life experiences.

Intersectional theory asserts that people are often disadvantaged by many factors of oppression, such as racism, sexism, ableism, and others. They intersect and interact with each other to create unique experiences of discrimination and disadvantage for people who hold multiple marginalized identities. In the context of disability, this means recognizing that people with disabilities often face not only discrimination based on their disability but also discrimination based on their race, gender, sexual orientation, or other identities.

Unfortunately, the multifamily industry is not immune to these prejudices, and the only way to combat them is to discuss them openly.

Intersectionality is a term coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw. She is famous for saying, “If you see inequality as a ‘THEM’ problem or as an unfortunate ‘OTHER’ problem, that is a problem.”

The term “breaking the glass ceiling” has traditionally referred to the act of breaking through barriers that have prevented people from marginalized groups (in this case, people with disabilities) from achieving positions of power, influence, or esteem in various industries, fields, or social structures. This includes barriers in the workplace, politics, or other areas of society, but it also can include micro-level inequities in family hierarchies, local communities, and even the places they call home.

When we think about disability, intersectionality, and breaking glass ceilings together in multifamily, we are acknowledging the unique challenges faced by people with disabilities who are also members of other marginalized groups, and we recognize the importance of creating opportunities for them to break through these barriers and achieve success in their lives.

This means working to address the inequities of disability discrimination and create more inclusive environments and universal design infrastructures where people with disabilities can fully participate, thrive, and have a true sense of belonging.

Ableism as a Barrier

My layers of intersection have led me down the path of both privilege and discrimination over the last 15 years. I have built a successful career in multifamily, where, ultimately, I found a place of belonging as a woman with a disability that could get the job done. But this didn’t come easy.

In fact, one of the first meetings I had in this industry was held on a grass lawn in front of a leasing office. Because they had been sued, the team didn’t allow people in wheelchairs on their property; this was a hard day for me as a young woman making her way in a new industry and excited to put in the work to grow her career.

This was a day I was not seen for who I am as a multifaceted person who also happens to be disabled and living life from a wheelchair. This was, and still today, is ableism.

Ableism is the greatest barrier facing people with disabilities in our world today. It is everywhere we turn. It’s so ingrained in our society’s way of thinking that it’s often overlooked, goes unnoticed, or missed altogether, even by those of us that are meant to be the guardians of inclusion.

Ableism is born out of bias, stigma, and fear and leads to the exclusion of people with disabilities from the resources and opportunities they need to succeed in life. It promotes the invisibility of the many layers of who we are as humans, and it can often lead to being seen as mere objects, as wheelchairs rather than seen as people.


In multifamily, ableism can be intertwined in the feelings or programs meant to dismantle it: Section 8, fair/affordable housing, low-income, HUD, and the ADA. It can be evoked in terms meant to describe it, such as accommodation, accessibility, modification, or adjustment.

It is important to recognize this. It is important to talk and communicate about this. And most importantly, it is important to change this.

26% of people have a disability (1 in 4 Americans), yet it’s estimated that less than 6% of the national housing supply is designed to be accessible.

Many states offer low-interest, long-term deferred-payment loans for new construction, rehabilitation, and preservation of permanent and transitional rental housing for lower-income households. The federal Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) program has been a significant source of new multifamily housing for a quarter century, producing more than 2 million units of affordable rental housing since 1987.

Yet, a majority of the opportunity for accommodation remains on the individual property developer or development group. Laws such as the ADA that Judy Heuman advocated for so many years ago created equitable avenues of freedom for the 61 million Americans in the U.S. living with a disability.

ADA and other laws like it should not be feared under an ableist way of thinking but rather lifted up, advanced, and utilized as the powerful tools they are! These tools and freedoms give us access to education, opportunities and resources, work, and housing that works for each of us, in the way each of us needs, as we change and grow (and become disabled) over our lifetime.

It’s hard enough to accept ourselves for who we are today and then add in the many layers and challenges that come from being disabled, where a disabled body is considered inferior to an able-bodied one. It becomes easy to see that the intersections that make up our identities will be both empowering and oppressing depending on the situation we find ourselves in. And as we try to make our way in our careers and lives, we need to keep this in mind.

The Key to Mutual Success

The key to our mutual success in this world is to lift up the things we may doubt about ourselves and others. When we lift up our differences as values rather than limitations by learning to accept these differences, limitations, and doubts for what they are and acknowledge their existence, we will then be able to figure out how to adapt by discovering what is needed to overcome them.

This process takes true reflection. It takes considerations for what is extravagant vs. necessary and reveals our wants vs. our needs. The key is to find solutions and paths that empower us and help us feel valued, respected, dignified, and heard. In this, we need to accept that there is give and take in every solution, and in doing this, we will create equitable opportunities for all of us.

The biggest challenges for people living with disabilities today are the stigmas, bias, and ableism that they face. Without recognizing ableism and its effects, we will never fully understand what inclusion, accessibility, and equity mean for every diversity.

Work To Disable Ableism!

Open your minds to the disability perspective as it is generally missing from society, the workplace, and any conversation today. Ask yourselves what it looks like when we put ourselves in another’s shoes or wheels and shift what is perceived as possible by turning off and disabling ableism. Differences are okay. The important thing is that we don’t favor one over the other but celebrate each of us for our uniqueness.

No matter what shape or size we come in, when we disable ableism, we truly begin to see people for people and accept our differences as valuable attributes that we can leverage in the workplace, bringing a broader outlook to our world by expanding possibilities for all.

Read this article on the Grace Hill website: