Ableism is pervasive in society, accepted as normal and “how things are,” because too many people are oblivious to the myriad ways systemic ableism determines how we build out human spaces and interact. Even if you aren’t disabled, read on—everyone contributes to internalized ableism, or the ableism disabled people apply to themselves, because it comes from society.
Ableism can be defined as “stereotyping, prejudice, discrimination, and social oppression toward people with disabilities.” It’s based on the premise that being “abled” is normal and preferred.
Internalized ableism results from absorbing ableist messages and the lack of meaningful conversations about ableism. We project society’s negative judgements onto ourselves because we are ingrained to accept their labels for us and internalize the pernicious stereotypes and misconceptions that discriminate against disabled people. Not all the time, probably, and not always consciously, but it’s easy to buy into social norms because they are ubiquitous, part of everyday speech and habits. We are wheelchair bound, victims of our disabling conditions who must strive to overcome our handicaps and not be burdens. As a result, we feel ashamed to ask for accommodations, to be our real selves without excuse or cover-up.
After chronic illness altered my abilities, I spent years apologizing. Walking with friends—“I’m sorry, I can’t walk that fast, I could meet you at the cafe.” At the grocery store—“I’m sorry, I need help moving these to the car.” To myself, I said “You can do it, just push through the pain,” and tried to take the pain meds less often than prescribed. I was proud of being able to “rise above” my body’s demands. Sometimes I felt like I spoke about symptoms too often and burdened friends with my new reality. Other times, I didn’t speak up about symptoms enough: I hid them in an attempt to deny, even to myself, how much illness had affected me and to not burden others with my “limitations.”
Internalized ableism is more than saying “I’m sorry.” When you push through pain and do something to keep up with friends, not wishing to be an inconvenience, that’s internalized ableism. Your actions are not an inconvenience just because they don’t match society’s expectations. As disability activist Imani Barbarin observed, “Disabled people don’t overcome their disability, they overcome your bias.”
We disabled folks have absorbed many other ableist messages and, in addition to them harming us, they reinforce and perpetuate ableism. Do any of the internalized ableism bingo card messages below match your experiences?
The bingo card is common online, I downloaded it from the subreddit r/Ehlers-Danlos. (EDS is a spectrum of hereditary connective tissue disorders.) Members of the subreddit posted the comments below about how the bingo card messages play out in their lives.
Smiling through the pain for other people’s sake.
“For a while, directly after realizing the lifelong implications of this disability, I was really good about being honest to myself and setting limits. I can see now that I’ve drifted back into pushing through the pain, doing more than I should, and not speaking out about my limits for the sake of being a burden.”
I’m not REALLY disabled.
“I realized that my imposter syndrome … was a coping mechanism. My brain makes me think my disability is fake, so that I don’t have to process how scary it is to be this fragile and limited.”
Someone spoke up in opposition to the internalized ableism concept.
”I hate people saying a lot of these things are internalized ableism when really it’s just us coping with medical PTSD or doubting ourselves because we’ve been told we’re faking it and forced to doubt ourselves because medical professionals made us so many times. Telling people they have internalized ableism just makes us feel bad all over again, when the real problem is others making us doubt our illness and disability.”
Others responded, explaining why internalized ableism is important to name and recognize.
”It helps point out how we absolutely would not speak to or think about a friend that way. It also helps to realize that these thoughts have been pushed on us by society and that they are harmful, even when loved ones are suggesting them.”
”The reason why this is internalized ableism is when all those medical ‘professionals’, and others, told us to doubt our symptoms, (they) were being ableist themselves, and we internalized that messaging and behaviour.”
“To me, all it is is recognizing when those ableist messaging and behaviours start seeping into our own mindsets and it’s harmful to the extent that these mindsets prevent us from getting the help and recognition we need, including from ourselves. It’s not that we’re ableist—it’s that ableism has been so routinely used against us that the same thought patterns emerge as well.”
Here are some specific ways in which we have internalized society’s ableism.
- Feeling undesirable.
- Seeing ourselves as burdens.
- Acting as if we don’t deserve accommodations.
- Having low personal expectations.
- Being unsure if you “fit in” to the disability community.
- Wondering if you are imagining your illness or other disability even though you know you aren’t.
- Thinking you have to prove you are disabled.
- Hiding our disabilities to appear “normal.”
Prior to my own diagnosis I had very little experience of disability and ill health, other than what I’d seen in the media. And to me, the media had typified disabled people into two very clear camps. First, you had ‘the superheroes’: the ones who are ‘overcoming’ what are described as their ‘limitations’. These are the people we see hailed as miraculous beings, people to remind all of us that ‘anything is possible if only we try hard enough’. They’re praised by the media and the general public for putting themselves at risk to achieve their goals, sacrificing everything to ‘defy’ their disability.
And then there are the others. The ones equally as quick to be labelled as the ‘fakers’ and the ‘benefits-scroungers’. The ones who actually dare to share the discrimination they face when trying to access the support they’re entitled to.
Some of the common ableist “compliments” from non-disabled people that become internalized ableism include these.
- You are such an inspiration.
- No one would ever guess you have a disability.
- You’re so lucky! I wish I could work from home, take my dog to a restaurant, park closer to the store.
- Oh it can’t be THAT bad, you are at this event.
- I’m tired/achy/nervous/depressed, too.
How I help myself avoid internalized ableism.
- I’m less apologetic these days. because my non-disabled friends began telling me, “Don’t apologize, we know you are doing your best … we want to help.” Sometimes, in my thoughts, however, I’m still apologizing for not meeting society’s expectations of normal, and saying “thank you” aloud when someone understands I’m doing my best even if it doesn’t meet those expectations: Thank you for letting my normal be okay [eyeroll at myself].
- Rising above my pain “syndrome” was addressed right away by my doctor telling me I’d need less pain med if I blocked pain before it has amped up rather than chasing it once it’s intolerable. However, learning that ignoring pain wasn’t “noble” took longer and still is an issue for me, although now it’s usually a calculation I make consciously: Is the activity I want to do worth taking the hit (consequences)?
- I’ve embraced disability as part of my identity.
- I intentionally open up conversations about disabilities and common themes, such as this one. When appropriate in context, in everyday conversations, I’ll bring in disability realities to “mainstream” disability convos, although it’s difficult. People avoid facing up to their ableism and can grow nasty in their self-justifications.
Everyone is part of this and can help overcome it.
There’s no downside to learning more about how ableism manifests in one’s own speech and behaviors and to being open to having it pointed out.
Ableism is prejudice—We need to be able to talk about it without recrimination or defensiveness.
As I’ve noted, however, there can be downsides to speaking up when we see ableism, but do so when you feel capable of tolerating the defensive counterattacks. Society is designed to be ableist so it takes our conscious attention to dismantle the ableist conventions underlying the media, infrastructure, schools, workplaces, and relationships.
Pointing out ableism in everyday conversations, including comments on Daily Kos, often results in “I was just” defensiveness, outright denials, and sometimes nasty counterattacks. I’ve heard people justify their inspiration porn with the excuse that “people appreciate my comment/story.” That doesn’t mean it is acceptable; it means the ableist prejudice is pervasive, that you and they are willing to use it for your own benefit.
Closed-mindedness obstructs the meaningful conversations about ableism that will improve our social norms about disability and the lives of disabled people.
Learn even more in this “Ableism 101” panel discussion from the Daily Kos Equity Council this week, hosted by staff writer Marissa Higgins and featuring three disability activists: Imani Barbarin, Ariel Henley, and Dior Vargas. About 24 minutes in, a lively discussion begins on the use of mental health labels as call-outs, and how to deal with people, including progressives, who deny this is a real problem. In particular, Vargas attuned my awareness to an extension of this kind of ableism: the use of distorted images to signify disgusting, horrible people.
Editor’s Note: This story’s lead image has been changed.
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