Content Warning: Discussion on internalized ableism, self hatred, mention of death, and mention of suicide.
*Please note: the picture above has descriptive alt text that we wrote, but is only usable for screen readers as it is a featured image.
Internalized ableism stems from the constant ableism that people with disabilities manage everyday. Internalized ableism is when the ableism is directed inwards and towards the self. Often, the internalized experience is not apparent to the person who inadvertently uses it in their everyday language. This makes it difficult for the person to recognize the self-harm and the internalized tug of war they are having with themselves about being disabled. Internalized ableism is subtle and festers within the person as prejudice, stigma, stereotypes, and self hatred, which grows on the idea of what non-disabled people consider to be “normal or biotypical”. This goes as deep as to even hide or mask the disability symptoms and this is fueled by the praise from non-disabled people, which then turns into self-praise. This is a cyclic pattern that further ingrains the belief system that being disabled is not okay and that being non-disabled is better.
The impact of internalized ableism is not only felt by the person experiencing it but also by those around them which can make the internalized ableism even harder to explore as the compliments and praise provide a comfort that being perceived as biotypical is desired, and if disability symptoms or barriers occur it’s an inconvenience, or undesirable to people who are not disabled. When the person with the disability masks their symptoms or pushes through the barrier, non-disabled people consider it strength or what a disabled person should do. Then the non-disabled person normalizes this experience, and considers other people with disabilities who do not mask their symptoms, or make a point to express their accessibility needs not being met, as not trying hard enough, or they complain too much, or they’re not grateful for the good things in life, and so on. This example demonstrates how it becomes unsafe for the person with a disability to unpack their internalized ableism, because of the fear of losing potentially a friend, family member, work opportunities, or support. The person needs to weigh carefully whether they can express their disability, or address their concerns with accessibility without jeopardizing these relationships, or if it is better to mask symptoms and allow ableism to continue to occur to maintain the relationships or work position. Another way internalized ableism impacts others is when internalized ableism is used against another member of the disability community. This occurs when someone who is experiencing internalized ableism questions or explains to other people with disabilities what they should or shouldn’t do as a disabled person, or even how they should feel about their disability which leads to more oppression.
In some cases, the person with a disability is unaware that what they are experiencing is ableism, or internalized ableism, and were never taught about these topics, or had the support. This complicates their ability to address ableism, or unpack their internalized ableism, which leads to oppression and the inability to get their accessibility needs met. This reduces the person’s overall quality of life, and puts strain on their mental health and wellbeing. In some cases, internalized ableism can lead to depression, loneliness, and/or suicide, because the person feels as though they are not worthy of the same love and care that non-disabled people experience. The impact of internalized ableism can quickly become life or death, because people with disabilities often believe and internalize the idea that they are unlovable, unable to have a fulfilling life, unproductive, uneducated, a burden, and that’s only a few examples of what has been stated about people with disabilities. Then there are circumstances where internalized ableism stems from cultural expectations where disability is considered unacceptable, and to be anything less than neurotypical or biotypical is shunned in the person’s family or community. The person with a disability then internalizes this and tries to be as acceptable as possible to be considered worthy enough to avoid being isolated.
In other cases, the internalized ableism creates a barrier to seek medical care as they may fear that they will not be believed, or there is a fear of being diagnosed with a medical, mental health, and/or physical disability. These fears can prevent people from getting life saving treatment, and these fears are justified because there is severe ableism, racism, ageism, and sizeism in the medical community, but it’s the internalized ableism from the known ableism that prevents people from going to the hospital in an emergency situation. In this case the person can be putting themselves at risk of having a complicated outcome, or potentially even death. Some people refuse to use assistive devices such as a cane or wheelchair, or are against wearing a life saving medical alert pendent or bracelet out of fear of other people knowing that they have a disability, as they don’t want to be discriminated against, or even noted as having a disability. However, the assistive devices can improve mobility and autonomy, whereas the medical alert pendent or bracelet has important information that can prevent the person from being harmed or killed in the event of an emergency.
Internalized ableism is complex and exists as a coping and protective mechanism. Internalized ableism’s purpose is to create internalized conflicts that demoralizes the person to the point that they believe that they are inferior, they are not worthy to be as they are, they are not worth the time or work to be with, to act as neurotypical or biotypical as possible to make other people more comfortable, that they are lazy, that they are not doing enough, that they shouldn’t love themselves, that they are not worthy of romantic relationships, that they are not disabled enough to be considered disabled, and other internalized dialog. It is difficult to manage the internalized discourse when these thoughts, feelings, or emotions toward themselves are not being addressed, or when it is normalized by friends, family, their community, or society.
People with disabilities are slowly learning and fighting for their rights to exist just as they are, without accommodating non-disabled people. As disability communities connect on the internet the more support people have to do the work to unlearn ableism and internalized ableism. However, this work can only occur when the person with a disability has been made aware that what they are experiencing is oppression and internalized ableism. When internalized ableism is ingrained within the person it may take other community members to let the person know that what they are saying or doing is a form of internalized ableism and that they need to process it. Often when a person is confronted with the possibility of having internalized ableism, they will automatically be defensive, because that is all the person has ever known, and it is their way of living through an ableist world. It takes time, patience, and self-kindness to slowly unlearn the self-hatred and ableist views of others and it is far from an easy task.
For more information about internalized ableism please checkout these links below:
Lying Thoughts That Prove Internalized Ableism is Real Link: https://crutchesandspice.com/2017/10/06/7-lying-thoughts-that-prove-internalized-ableism-is-real/
Internalized Ableism or Why Do I Still Hate Myself Link: https://www.didistutter.org/blog/internalized-ableism-or-why-do-i-still-hate-myself
A Long Overdue Reflection on My Ableism Link: http://cdrnys.org/blog/advocacy/a-long-overdue-reflection-on-my-ableism/