Posted in information, sqt

{sqt} – internalized ableism

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:

  1. …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.)
  2. …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.)
  3. …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.
  4. …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.
  5. …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.
Limerick standing at the edge of a lake, arms raised mid-flap. I never want him to think he has to stop his excited flapping to fit in and make friends. I never want to cut out his natural and beautiful expression of happiness, and in so doing damage the happiness itself. So why do I try so hard to do that to myself?
  1. …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.
  2. …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?

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?