Ableism and internalized ableism

So what is this ableism business all about?

It’s pretty simple, it’s like racism except towards disabled people. Ableism is the set of social practices that I am met with when I venture outside the door of my home. It is not something most people would admit they adhere to, it is much more subtle than that. I am automatically met with a number of assumptions – very often unconscious ones – that lead to me being treated in a way different from everyone else. And the kicker here is that these assumptions are based both on my actual disability as well as presumptions about my disability that only live in their head. And I am not just talking about non-disabled people here.

A great deal of my disabled friends hold onto the idea that we are fundamentally different from non-disabled, they see how we have built a world that is not created for disabled and how difficult it would be to change that world. By doing this they fail to see the more subtle discriminations, the attitudes and the unwillingness to make things easier for us. So therefore we must be fundamentally different, we are not able to live and participate fully in the societies we are (somewhat) part of.

Meanwhile there is no concrete definition of what ‘disability’ is. Disability is a continuum from the able-bodied Miss Universe type of person to the obviously disabled blind, double amputee paraplegic with a twitch. Many people are living in bodies that at one moment are perceived as ‘able’ and the very next as ‘disabled, all depending on their circumstances.

When I try to tell my disabled friends about the obvious practices of discrimination they quickly point out physical barriers and how they are not something we can do anything about. There is very little interest in discussing the non-physical barriers and I can only assume that they are not willing because it will force them to look at themselves in an entirely different light; a light where they are human beings with equal human rights and not as victims to their circumstances, a light where they would have to look past the disability to look at themselves as merely human beings with the same human needs as others. But by refusing to see ourselves simply as people we are implying that we do not deserve to be treated as equals.

Many (dare I say the majority?) choose to see themselves as ‘other’, marginalized and unworthy. There is a large contingency who subscribe to the view that the impairment itself is something inherently tragic, an ‘otherness’ so horrible that it is the reason for the poor treatment they receive and therefore also the reason for all the problems they encounter – forgetting that other people might have similar problems despite their obvious lack of any disability that they can attribute it to.

Thus the disability becomes the reason for an inferiority complex. This inferiority complex becomes the foundation for that person’s self-image and their overall understanding of disability as a concept, something they are victim to.

These practices are all part of what I call ‘internalized ableism’. A practice where disabled people internalize the ideas and prejudices of society that see disability as ‘other’, as something undesirable, as tragic and as something to be shunned if not pitied. This in turn results in the disabled person loathing themselves and their bodies. They inherently see themselves as lesser human beings and they dislike others in their group because they are the mirror image of that self-loathing. I know quite a few people who will claim how they hate other cripples – I have even been one of them myself for a while when I was younger.

This way they end up blaming themselves for the oppression they experience. Deborah Marks has explained it rather aptly in her book, “Disability: Controversial Debates and Psychosocial Perspectives” She says:

Internalized oppression is […] the result of our mistreatment. It would not exist without the real external oppression that forms the social climate in which we exist. Once oppression is internalized, little force is needed to keep us submissive. We harbour inside ourselves the pain and memories, the fears and the confusions, the negative self-images and the low expectations, turning them into weapons with which to re-injure ourselves, every day of our lives.

As Marks says, this self-degradation makes it really easy to for the norm to remain status quo. The disabled person who subscribes to this view can lean back and say to him/herself:

“Disability is something horrible bestowed upon me so how can I be expected to act normally and live a satisfying life?” And I am hard pressed to tell them that they are wrong. It is extremely difficult to tell someone they are wrong when everyone and everything around them confirm their belief.

Disability is a great excuse for wallowing in a misery that in other people might simply be called sadness. Or if it is really serious, depression, a psychological state that is expected to be dealt with and overcome within a foreseeable timeframe. But for the disabled it is not necessarily so. They are living tragic lives and in our oh-so-sympathetic understanding we forget to care for it. Misery is an existential condition for the disabled and they have an inherent right to feel so by the tragedy they represent for us.

And that view serves us disabled well. We get a great deal of attention by playing the victim role. We get empathy and care from those around us. Many end up acting so pathetic that they can’t differentiate between the care that is actually needed and a treatment that is nothing but pampering and degrading, others hate it but are not able to escape their self-inflicted victimization, thereby becoming the poster image for the ‘bitter cripple’.

The care and attention is a kind of paternalism that only perpetuates the oppressive relationship between disabled and non-disabled. It allows the non-disabled to show a profound and sincere compassion and sympathy for us while we are kept in a position of social subordination and gratitude.

It keeps us in a state where it is all right for ourselves and others to view us as dependent, helpless, innocent victims who through our physical limitations are unproductive and often a burden. We are at our most acceptable if we sit down, shut up and act as if we didn’t exist as human beings.

So what do we get out of it? By ‘buying’ the ableism idea we get the opportunity to be lazy. We become the mute and mindless receivers of charity and well-meaning. To a certain extent some might even agree with those (radicals) who say we are oppressed and that we need to point out inequalities in our lives. But nobody can expect to change our surroundings so that they are accessible to all groups of disabled. And since we can’t change our environment so we can get around without some form of aide, why even bother thinking about it? At the end of the day everyone knows that disability is all about physical impairment and not about discrimination. I mean, who would discriminate against those who everybody pities?

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2 thoughts on “Ableism and internalized ableism

  1. I’m a little confused, maybe because my disability is invisible to most around me, and I’ve come aware of it at 20ish. (I am autistic) I have been told that I have been “acting like a victim” when asking for accommodations and support from my family. Bitter, selfish, wallowing. all things I’ve been called since revealing this to my family. Are you saying that disabled people act this way? Because I find when people call me this, its more of a way to ignore what disability really means, and actually think about it for a while. I feel like you are saying this, but past “Disablity is a great excuse…”, I feel you contradict yourself.

  2. Helpless? Dependent?

    Not Quite! Try more like ‘you CHOSE to be this way, out of the darkest malice, with the express goal of troubling those who have (self-righteously) chosen CORRECTLY’.

    If they (those who see themselves as blameless and pure) DID see ‘those disabled’ as
    worthy of ‘Pity’, they would treat such individuals accordingly. Some do, or so it appears.

    In reality, pity is a RARE event. What is actually happening, as a rule, is Impression Managment being done by the ‘givers’ in order to boost their social dominance. Pity
    (the real kind) comes from a place of altruism – or, perhaps, ‘there but for the grace of God go I’. (not certain about this last…)

    Genuine altruism is a RARE thing.

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