Posted in musings

internalized ableism

Sometimes the things we hate the most are things inside ourselves.

If you’ve read the Harry Potter series, you may remember the story of Dumbledore’s younger sister Ariana, who was unable to acknowledge or accept her own magical abilities after a traumatizing encounter at a young age. Because of her experience, she began to see her magic as something freaky, abnormal, disgusting, or fearsome – so she tried to conceal it, control it, eradicate it. But it was a part of who she was, and for all her attempts it would still come bursting out, wild and uncontrolled, in moments of high stress or emotion. And through trying to bury her magic, she was never able to reach the heights of power and beauty that she would otherwise have been capable of: her own self-hatred, shaped by the fear and disgust of others, held her back.

The movie Frozen tells a similar story. Elsa tries for years to lock in her power, controlling it only in the sense of never using it and never letting anyone know it exists – but she has to isolate herself to do so, locking herself away just as she tries to lock her power away, and when circumstances intensify, her power is revealed in erratic, wild, dangerous ways. And because of all those years of the people she loved and trusted most telling her not to use her power, to hide it, to control it, she is (at first, anyway) unable to see the beauty and potential of it. She is swamped by feelings of her own inadequacy and monstrosity, believing the lies of the disgusted and fearful crowds.

This is what internalized ableism looks like.

This is how it feels to believe that a part of you is broken or inadequate or shameful, that something about yourself should be hidden and controlled and never talked about, that something central to the core of your being is something normal people are right to be afraid of or disgusted by. This is what it looks like to shut down your abilities because they are different than other people’s abilities and they make you stand out in an uncomfortable way – to deny the fullness of who you are in a futile attempt to just blend in and meet the expectations of normalcy. It can lead to anxiety or depression: to a fear of rejection, perhaps, a fear of being revealed as some sort of unlovable freak or incompetent imposter. It can lead to resentment of or contempt for those who are open about their differences – maybe there is a bit of jealousy there: that someone else is able to live without shame into the fullness of the abilities God gave them, without the constant self-hatred and fear; or that someone else gets to inconvenience everyone with their needs while you have to suck it up and pretend your needs don’t exist because you don’t want to be the abnormal monstrous burden that your ableism tells you that you are.

It gets a bit emotionally convoluted, in case you couldn’t tell 🙂

And the worst part is that it is so hard to see it in yourself, and so hard to change it once you do. Shifting your paradigm about the world and your place in it feels like repeating a lie, over and and over again, in an attempt to make it true. Different is not less, over and over again. My needs do not detract from the value of my personhood, over and over again. Having areas of weakness does not mean I am incompetent and lazy, over and over again. Asking for help does not mean I am a failure, over and over again. My success, and my path to it, might not look normal, and that is ok – over and over again. Maybe if the new thoughts get repeated enough they can beat down the ascendancy of the old negative ones.

Ariana never had the chance; she died before she was able to heal, if she ever would have been able to anyway. But Elsa – by the end of her story she is beginning to learn, beginning to accept herself with her differences, not despite them. She is beginning to see the extra beauty the world can hold because of the differences of the people in it, no matter how abnormal or debilitating their abilities may seem at first. She is beginning to focus on what she can do instead of trying – and failing – to act just like everyone else, and in so doing is able to fill a unique place in her community instead of staying isolated and hurting.

We all have something to give, and we all have strengths and abilities we can develop, and we hurt ourselves most of all when we believe the lies that say our differences make us less or that we should be ashamed of our weaknesses and needs. Society has enough contempt for the disabled and the neurodivergent; why should we add to it with our own self-hatred?

 

Posted in musings

because it is good to belong somewhere

One of my favorite things about our church is the group of people I’ve gotten to know through the special needs branch of the kids ministry (called Equipped, for future more succinct reference). I’m not one who ever really feels that I belong in any particular group, but it comes close here – at the least, I feel like here are people who desire to understand and support our whole family, and who have a solid foundation and similar experiences on which to build that understanding and support.

To provide a concrete example of what I mean, I skipped our small group’s Christmas get-together (familiar people, familiar place, convenient time of day) because I was worried about the social expectations involved; but I jumped at the chance to go to the Equipped Christmas party (only some familiar people, unfamiliar place, inconvenient time of day) because I knew that whatever behavioral issues came up we would be unconditionally loved and accepted, and because I knew there would be other people there like us potentially dealing with the exact same behaviors and struggles. To be not alone, and for one’s difficulties to be understood and normalized, is an incredible gift.

I think it is for this reason that minorities and people with other differences often find themselves isolated from what could be called the mainstream culture (it may only be mainstream relative to a certain location or culture subset, of course). It is just so much more comfortable for any human being to be around people who are similar to them, with whom they can connect across some significant differentiating and identifying characteristic – and for people who are typically outnumbered or alone in those key characteristics in everyday life, a chance to not be the odd one out is like a breath of fresh air.

It is of course good and important to know how to live in mainstream culture, and it is at least as good and important to understand minority cultures of which one is not a part (I am always thankful for every person who tries to understand autism instead of judging or ignoring it, who isn’t offended by my refusal to participate in Sunday morning “greet your neighbor” moments for instance!), but it is also good to find a place where you can be yourself – and as a parent, to connect with a community where your child can be themselves around other children like them, so they too can have a place and time to no longer feel different and alone. And that is the gift that my church is striving to give to her children with differences and disabilities, all these neurotypical parents seeking to understand and support their children instead of forcing them to hide their true selves and appear “normal”, and it is (even incomplete and imperfect) a beautiful thing.