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Ableism: What is it? And why do you need to know about it?

What is Ableism?

Ableism is a huge, complex topic but it’s short dictionary definition is … “discrimination in favour of able-bodied people.” Ableism is heavily engrained in our society and impacts everyone’s daily life. 

But what does Ableism actually look like?

Ableism comes in many shapes and sizes, I personally did not even recognise the full extent of ableism until I started going to therapy. Once in therapy I started to explore my maladaptive thought processes and began to notice my negative self-talk which grew out of ableist culture and societal beliefs. Here are some examples adapted from Medical News Today:

  • asking someone what is “wrong” with them — it’s nice to show you care and want to learn more but think about how you might ask or go about this. 
  • saying, “You do not look disabled,” as though this is a compliment
  • viewing a person with a disability as inspirational for doing typical things, such as having a career
  • assuming a physical disability is a product of laziness or lack of exercise/not trying hard enough
  • using public facilities that are for people with disabilities, such as parking spaces or toilets
  • questioning whether a person’s disability is real
  • asking someone “what do you do all day or what do you do for work”

How can I help?

There are many ways to support others and be more anti-ableist. Here are some examples adapted from Medical News Today:

  • inform yourself and learn about disability — what does it mean and how does it affect people
  • listen and be attentive to people with disabilities, hear about their experiences and give people with disabilities a platform, let me speak for themselves instead of speaking for them
  • challenge ableism as it happens — correct myths, support equity and necessary adjustments or stop bullying and discriminatory stereotypes and language 
  • advocate for accessibility and inclusivity within your community, workplace or home
  • enact policies or laws that counter ableism
  • learn about ableism, ableist stereotypes, and the history of disability rights activism — you are already doing this one right now, keep it up! 

Ableism is hard enough but so many of us have experienced widespread mistreatment to the point we now experience internalised ableism. 

What is Internalised Ableism?

“Internalised ableism is when a disabled person discriminates against themself and other disabled people by holding the view that:

  • disability is something to be ashamed of,
  • or something to be hide,
  • or by refusing accessibility or support.”
What is Internalised Ableism

My story with unconscious ableism

One major issue I am recognising in myself and am trying to work through is unconscious internalised ableism. Of course society is not set up in an equitable, welcoming way and I feel this has led me to judge and hold myself to impossible standards.  

I felt very judged by the outside world when I had to drop out of university due to my invisible illnesses/disabilities. It was especially hard as people could not actively see what was ‘wrong’ with me. This made me feel I had to justify myself or prove my disability. Similarly, this is something I struggle with when using my disability parking sticker as I sometimes receive glances from people because my disability is not readily available for them to see. 

There are societal stereotypes as to what disability looks like, when in fact disability looks like everything. (As I shared in a recent instagram post there are many faces of chronic illness). I dismissed and denied myself equity rights for years.

I refused to seek help because people would say ‘you don’t look sick’ – so I would doubt myself and my disability by asking questions like: do I really need the support? Is the support justified? Am I sick enough to ask for help? 

Today I still really struggle with claiming my rights for extra help and support, likely because the ablest world I grew up in fed me the belief that: extra help = weakness. I worry I need this support because I am ‘weak’ and ‘I can’t keep up’, but it is the ableist culture that is weak, flawed and not equitably set up.

Importantly, receiving support is not a sign of weakness or personal failure and people living with disabilities are by far the strongest, most resilient people I know – living and working in a system not designed for us. 

How to Identify Internalised Ableism through Common Phrases and Self Talk

Internalised ableism often manifests as beliefs, schemas and common phrases. @a_spoonful_of_pain has shared some you can read in the picture or I have listed them below:

Internalised Ableism
  • “I shouldn’t use a wheelchair because I can walk”
  • “I can’t be disabled because I can do things others’ can’t”
  • “I’m not trying hard enough to get better”
  • “I’m faking it”
  • “I’m useless”
  • “I’m a burden”
  • “Other people are far worse off than me”
  • “No one will love me because I’m disabled”
  • “It’s my fault I’m feeling like this”
  • “I shouldn’t ask for accomodations”

The Question: What do you do?

What do you do? (i.e. for work or study etc.). It’s a quick, natural question which helps us understand what a person does and what they might be like but it is an incredibly ableist question which fuels assumptions. 

I have been asked this question all my life and began to ask others this too. Society places value and engrains our identities in ‘what we do’ – as if what we do is who we are. Although I asked this question because it was ‘the norm’ I never truly believed it was a productive question. A person should not be judged by stereotypes and assumptions that may come along with certain job titles or academic work. 

I am trying to ask some new questions instead: what do you do for fun? Or what brings you joy? I feel these questions give us far more insight into people’s souls, lives and passions and help build better connections — and what could be better than that?

I hope by sharing an article on these topics we can spread awareness and give power back to those struggling with asking for help.

Take away points:

  • Become aware of ableism both in society and yourself, it is only with awareness that we can question and change ourselves and our reactions.
  • I want to encourage other people living with disabilities to not feel ashamed when asking for help and support they deserve – this is something I personally grapple with to this day. 
  • Receiving support is not a sign of weakness or personal failure, it is the system that has weaknesses due to its inequitable set up. We are not weak, in fact, people living with disabilities are by far the strongest people I know – living and working in a system not designed for us.
  • You are not defined by what you do. Your worth is not related to your productivity or output.
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  • Lucy

    This is one of the best posts I’ve read on ableism, thank you for sharing it. You explain so clearly what ableism is and the typical insensitive remarks we often have to deal with. Sadly we live in a society which bases our worth on external factors such as our productivity and job etc. I didn’t realise how guilty I was of internal ableism until I read your post. The first question I’m always asked is what I do for work, which instantly makes me feel judged and looked down on and of less value and worth as a result of that and other insensitive remarks. People really don’t understand the strength it takes to get through each day and being labelled lazy or inferior really is so damaging. I really hope in time as more awareness is raised and people are educated with posts like yours that we will begin to receive better care and understanding. Thanks again for putting together such a brilliant post.

    • Susie

      Thanks so much for your kind words Lucy!! I am really glad you found it clear and helpful 🙂

      Yes – I personally have only just started to realise how ableism has been impacting me until this past year, it’s crazy how it can become internalised. I completely understand that feeling! I really hate getting that question as well, and it’s such a common question too! I hope in time there will be more understanding and awareness too! <3

  • Lizzie

    This was very helpful. Thank you for sharing this. I always hate when I hear someone say to me, “you are such a fighter…” or this is one I especially am fond of, “oh wow, you are so positive and such an inspiration” I really just want to say, I really have no choice in the matter. Thank you for assuming that I did though.

    It makes me so mad when people don’t educate themselves about being in a wheelchair. It’s not a death sentence. If we aren’t born with a disability that doesn’t mean it was ever easy to having your life as you know it turned upside down.

    I want to be an advocate attorney for disabled people. This really lights my fire when people you don’t even know just make judgments about you and say hurtful things without even realizing that they are doing it.

    • Susie

      Hi Lizzie, thanks so much for taking the time to read this post and commenting ❤️

      Oh I get this too – whenever I hear this I think but we don’t have a choice. And when I hear people say things like that it kind of breaks my heart. I also couldn’t agree more the lack of education is so disappointing.

      I’m so pleased to hear you want to go into this area of work. We need more passionate, caring people out there advocating!!

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