People with disabilities are often marginalized by society – and there are a variety of reasons for it. The social model of disability focuses on how instead of viewing our symptoms as failures on our part, it’s time to start looking at what assumptions society has made that makes participating in the greater community more challenging.
While there is too much outside of ourselves that is inaccessible, one of the other major problems, which I want to talk about today, is the fact that very often we, as disabled people, have bought into these sociatal perspectives and so view ourselves as less worthy of support or inclusion due to our disabilities.
Internalized ableism occurs when a disabled person believes that they are less worthy due to their disability and act accordingly.
From disproportionate feelings of being a burden to self-hatred to assuming personal incompetence in areas of your life not associated with the limits of your condition, many people with disabilities suffer from internalized ableism.
I know it can be a struggle for me as well, and I sometimes fall prey to fears about my own life and choices.
I do my best to fight these instincts though – whether it’s to readjust my expectations for myself as needed, to reexamine why I have taken the actions I have, or whether it’s to take some time to give myself grace about an incomplete project or a missed deadline.
When my symptoms started(and I think this is very common among people with disabilities), I was often extremely embarassed by my symptoms.
I remember being afraid to go out because I might start shaking or limping or whatever.
I remember being so worried about wetting my pants that I didn’t feel comfortable leaving the house.
I know it’s frustratingly common to feel like all avenues are closed because of a disability – it took me a long time to rethink how I could manage my life with my FND symptoms– and my understanding is that this is a very common challenge.
Defining our limits
Are there limits? Of course. But the limits are based on the practical limits our conditions cause, not the label of disability.
For example, knowing how my movement symptoms work, I sometimes elect to stay home instead of going to the city for an event because the cost of going would be too high(risk of injury or just too fatiguing), but that doesn’t mean that I can never go, just that I need to evaluate my limits each time I go up.
For a person who needs a motorized wheelchair, their limits include needing ramps or elevators that can carry that weight. But it doesn’t define their intellectual limits or hand-eye coordination.
Visible conditions can give some clue about the impairments a person has, but there’s also a huge(and growing)population with recognized invisible impairments, which need to be recognized and respected as well.
When dealing with anxiety issues, I do my best to recognize when I’m at a high anxiety level and manage it, as well as being extra aware of potential triggers – either avoiding them or minimizing how strongly I respond to them – giving myself some extra processing time.
For many neurodiverse people, that acceptance and understanding can be especially important .
The better you can define and recognize your own limitations, the easier it is to ask for the support that you actually need, instead of having to struggle to make your needs understood.
Also, defining those needs well lets you better recognize when those needs aren’t being met so that you can take steps to correct the problem.
To me the claim of ‘my disability made me do it‘ has the potential to be a form of internalized ablism. Yes, conditions give us limits, but part of our jobs is to understand our conditions to the best of our ability and grow as human beings within the boundaries our conditions set.
How I manage my internalized ablism
There are things that I strongly believe as part of this fight against internalized ablism
- I am a person who happens to have FND(Functional Neurological Disorder) – I do not let my diagnosis define my identity or actions
- I do have physical, mental and emotional limitations with this condition, and I value defining what those boundaries are(and are not) and how permanent(or impermanent) they are
- My actions are mine and I need to take full responsibility for how they affect others
- Empathy and compassion are important skills to nourish, and every interaction with others is an opportunity to nurture these skills
- I deserve respect and would not intentionally disrespect others
- My symptoms are outside of my control, and so I need to plan for them, and where appropriate take responsibility for their potential effects.
I know that I have had points where I defined my own progress in terms of ‘overcoming’ my FND, or ‘defeating it’.
That’s all internalized ableism. My FND is part of who I am, part of my identity. It isn’t an enemy outside of me at all – it’s a part of who I am. A part of me that I need to make peace with, a part to befriend and manage, rather than a foreign body that is trying to force me to fail.
Ableism is both insidious and extremely common
I don’t want people to fall victim to ableism and it, in all honesty, is an unfortunate practice common to both ableds and disabled people. Why is this the case? Well, because it’s a deeply accepted part of how our society works and because it’s a very normalized part of how our society works.
If a person hasn’t thought deeply about ableism, they likely participate in it. All too often, even today, making things accessible isn’t a priority, and the definition of accessibility is still often limited to just physically obvious conditions.
While people have picked up that certain terminology is now frowned on, too often there isn’t as much recognition of what it actually means to be respectful of other people’s disabilities, or of what ableism truly is.
Disabled people are the largest minority, but we generally are defined in a medicalized way. By this, I mean that not only are we defined by our diagnoses(often, people talk about ‘blind people’ or ‘Autistic people’ or ‘Little People'(if they know not to refer to them as dwarves)), rather than the disabled community as a whole.
While our needs do vary tremendously, dividing us by diagnosis also limits our potential and power as a community.
All too often, the focus of research and news is how the doctors have defined our condition(s) rather than how these symptoms impact our day-to-day lives.
By the same token, all too often, the focus and emphasis of abled people is on curing the disease, rather than understanding the condition.
I remember early on in my own process, having people express disbelief that there was no pill that would cure my FND.
Those same people often then lost interest in hearing about what I can do to manage it, or how the condition worked.
There seems to be a desire for disabled people to just get better and be normal again, when that simply isn’t how it works in most cases.
From ableist discriptions(the weather’s been crazy lately) to ableist sayings(it’s the blind leading the blind), ableism has been and remains in the center of much of our society and a socially acceptable form of expression.
Recognizing and manageng ableism is in its early stages here, and so it’s deeply embeded in our culture.
Recognizing our own ableism
Disabled people frequently make ableist statements and ableist assumptions. Sometimes this is directed outward to other disabled people, and other times, it’s directed inward towards ourselves.
We often are made to feel like a burden, especially for folks who become disabled later in life. While grieving the lost identity is healthy, there’s always got to be a point when you accept who you are and decide to move forwards.
Ableism makes that acceptance and recovery process much more difficult, because it’s so easy to carry on with the ableistic images we’ve already recognized and go ‘since I can’t do X, I can’t do y either’ even when it isn’t true.
For example, Deaf people can still enjoy music, Blind people can still paint, paraplegics can still dance, and people with pretty much any disability can still find ways to live a joyful and meaningful life.
However, being disabled does make most everything harder – physically, mentally, and emotionally. There is a grieving process, and the loss is real.
For too many of us with disabilities though, it’s a little too easy to slip from that grief and sense of loss into a state of internalized ableism that leads to (sometimes severe) self-limitation.
While I doubt anybody is completely immune to this, each person has their own point where the risk of this is the greatest, or their own specific form of internalized ableism, based on the combination of the condition(s) they have and their own life experience.
We all deserve to be happy with ourselves, but internalized ableism can, too often, stand in our way.
The mental and emotional transition isn’t easy, and it’s something that most people haven’t completely achieved. It’s a goal to aim for, work to progress on, and an ideal life situation.
We can recognize and stop our own internalized ableism
We can recognize that we are all likely guilty of ableism to some degree, and that it is something that we can work on managing. How can you(as an individual) do that?
- By accepting that your condition(s) create(s) real limitations
- By recognizing that you still can do many things despite those limitations
- By allowing yourself healing time – to recognize and grieve the losses your condition is associated with
- By choosing to find the positives in your life and focusing on what you can do, rather than what you can’t
- By actively choosing to befriend your own condition and to evaluate your own capabilities, rather than let society tell you what you can and cannot do.
As disabled people, we deserve respect and a better quality of life. One piece of that puzzle is, very simply, to respect ourselves and make peace with our own disabling conditions.