I’m joining the quick takes link-up today at This Ain’t The Lyceum with a rather more serious topic than normal. Head over there for the rest of the regular varied line-up.
Disability is innately challenging in various ways (hence the term disability), but it is also socially challenging because the surrounding culture is not designed to accommodate disability, typically misunderstands, and frequently actively stigmatizes it. When a person in a wheelchair can’t navigate safely down the sidewalk because someone left one of those electric rentable scooters lying across the width of it, for example, that is a challenge posed social ignorance and carelessness, not an inherent challenge of the disability. When people assume that a disabled person’s life will be less meaningful, less joyful, or less worthy, just because of the disability, that stigma and misunderstanding add a significant challenge that is not actually part of the disability itself: the burden of proving oneself to the community instead of having one’s potential and value automatically acknowledged. And in the face of that assumption, repeated over and over again, the disabled person may even begin to believe it themselves, in what is called internalized ableism.
I can really only speak for myself and the disability I know well, autism. But for me, internalized ableism is:
- …scratching my arms till they bleed because it’s more subtle and socially acceptable than flapping my hands in the air and I really just don’t want anyone to notice that I’m different and struggling here, please. (Just realizing this and giving myself permission to flap and stim in other more obvious ways has reduced my self-injurious stimming a lot, actually.)
- …laughing at everything that is probably a joke so that I’m not the clueless person who doesn’t get cultural humor. (I laugh when I’m nervous or overwhelmed too. I hate this. I hate that my emotional responses don’t match up to what they “should” be and I have hated it ever since an adult got angry with me as a kid for laughing in an “inappropriate” setting. Internalized ableism is often learned through emotionally significant childhood events; it often speaks to the heart with cruel, cutting hate.)
- …acting like I know things, even if I’m not totally sure, if it seems like everyone else knows already – only admitting ignorance if someone else does, because then I’m not the weird one who might not be worth bothering with.
- …believing I can’t serve God in any meaningful way because I’m too anxious to build relationships and share the Gospel with my neighbors/coworkers/homeless people/etc.
- …trying to get my kids to act “normal” instead of helping them live fully into the way God made them, disability and all, because I secretly (subconsciously?) think displaying their disability will hurt their chances of friendship, community, inclusion, and happiness.
- …doing everything on my own without asking for help, because I think asking for help for disability-related reasons either means I’m a useless burden on the relationship or lazy and immature and relying on my disability as an excuse.
- …assuming that the people I do rely on (particularly my husband, at this season of life) resent me or see me as a burden, or would do so if they understood the reality of my disability. I felt this years before I had a diagnosis: I knew that I was different, that I didn’t process things “normally”; that I had struggles no one else I knew had; and I thought this made me deficient and broken and that anyone who really knew me would stop loving me because it would be too much work. And that is just with Level 1 Autism. I can only imagine how internalized ableism, if not actively combatted, could bring down smothering waves of anxiety and depression on someone whose support needs are higher, either physically or emotionally.
In short – internalized ableism can rob the disabled person of joy, shut down their authentic self-expression, replace their faith and hope with fear and despair, and reduce the blessing and the gift they can be to the communities they are a part of. I don’t have a great solution for eradicating it, and I think it can only be done hand-in-hand with eliminating more generalized ableism in society – disabled people are going to pick up on the attitudes others have towards them, and especially as children can easily internalize those attitudes.
The following chart is, however, a well-written, sensitive, and helpful guide for evaluating your own attitudes toward disability. It’s aimed towards the non-disabled reader, but I honestly found it quite helpful in unearthing my own internalized and self-directed ableism as well.
Where on the chart do you see yourself? What has led you to where you are now in your understanding of disability, in either yourself or in others?
Has internalized ableism been a part of your life? If so, what does it look like for you? How do you move past ableism and learn to walk with joy in the fullness of who you are as a disabled person, beautifully and wonderfully made by a good and loving God?