A woman in a maroon blazer in a wheelchair sits at a sunny window of a café, opening up her laptop by her coffee

6 Signs of Internalized Ableism: Find Healing, Remake the World

In 2018, I sustained a serious back injury while traveling for work. For the next three months, I was unable to sit in a chair or climb stairs without acute pain and would then endure chronic pain for the next year and a half. I was given adjustments to my work duties for eight weeks and a rising desk was installed in my office to allow me to work while standing.

Although I move through this world with all the privileges as an able-bodied person, my injury gave me my first taste of the hostility our capitalistic world bears for bodies that are deemed less productive. Despite my limited and temporary injury, some of the ableist experiences I witnessed included:

  • Being suspected of lying about and exaggerating my injury to get out of work.
  • Being told other people with similar injuries don’t need work adjustments.
  • Being accused of not pulling my weight at work while I was suffering from chronic pain.
  • Being told numerous stories of how other disabled, injured, or ill colleagues cause inconvenience to the workplace.

My back pain was manageable. The constant shaming that left me feeling like a burden and a failure was not.

This post discusses the ways systemic disablism and ableism are internalized by all of us living within the dominator culture that judges disabled bodies to be deficient. I draw on disability scholarship and the work of disability justice activists to outline six signs of internalized ableism before exploring what is necessary for healing.

As an able-bodied person, my research and writing can only go so far. At the end of the post, you’ll find a collection of resources from disabled thinkers, educators, and activists who provide invaluable knowledge about the struggle for disability justice.

This may feel true for every era, but I believe I am living in a time where disabled people are more visible than ever before. And yet while representation is exciting and important, it is not enough. I want and expect more. We all should expect more. We all deserve more.

Alice Wong, Disability Visibility
disability yoga self care
Photograph by Cliff Booth

What are Disablism and Ableism?

Disablism is the discrimination, oppression, and violence that comes from the belief that disabled people are inferior to able-bodied people. Disablism can emerge through interpersonal prejudice and microaggressions as well as institutional discrimination against disabled people.

Where disablism focuses on discrimination against disabled people, ableism can be understood as the system of power that privileges certain bodies over others based on the abilities one exhibits or values.

Ableism is an ideology that shapes how all of us make sense of our bodies, relate to others and our environment, and is judged by others.

The ableist ideology promotes the scientific and medical interventions that maintain an ableist order of the world. From this view, able-bodied people are seen as ’healthy’ and ’whole’ and disabled people need to be ‘fixed’ to mitigate as many of their disabilities as possible.

Disabled people, from this ableist ideology, are believed to be physically, intellectually, socially, and morally inferior. The rest of us then design and organize the social world and physical/digital spaces in ways that further bar disabled people from being able to access ‘our’ spaces.

In my experience, ableism is one of the most invisible forms of domination and oppression.

While we’ve developed increasingly bold and sophisticated ways to talk about gender and racial issues, many people still think disablist and ableist prejudices are simply medical scientific ’facts’ about what healthy bodies should look like and be able to do.

In the video below, Mars Sebastian speaks with Imani Barbarin to clarify disablism and ableism.

From an intersectional feminist perspective, ableism can never be divorced from sexism, homophobia, transphobia, racism, colonialism, patriarchy, and capitalism. The ableist ideology has been able to become so dominating and consuming because we as a society are already well-versed in prioritizing certain (male, cisgender, heteronormative, white) bodies over others.

Related: 6 Signs of Internalized Colonialism & Racism (and How To Heal)

Under neoliberal capitalism, it’s not particularly surprising that ableism is about celebrating the bodies that can generate the most capital.

A major reason why disabled people are seen as less valuable is the belief that they can’t work as long or hard as able-bodied workers, even while institutional ableism routinely discriminates against disabled candidates and refuses to make public and organization spaces accessible to disabled workers.

Internalized Ableism

Although all vulnerable people can experience internalized oppression, internalized ableism (also called disabled self‐hatred) can be especially pernicious because so many people fail to identify ableism and its inherent problems.

The same people who understand it’s socially unacceptable to assert that men are inherently better than women or white people are superior to Black people can sometimes openly express ableist assumptions because those virulent ideas are so normalized in many cultures.

The persistent work of disability advocates and activists, however, has helped raise our collective consciousness and made the world a more hospitable place for all people.

It’s important to remember that internalized ableism is not the cause of disabled people’s suffering, but an effect of systemic ableism. This post does NOT condone ‘blaming the victim’, where disabled people are seen as being responsible for their own suffering.

While I hope this post may help disabled people reject internalized ableism and affirm their inherent self-worth, I also hope that fellow able-bodied people are prompted by this post to reflect on the ways we may perpetuate ableism in our everyday lives.

A blind Black woman is having coffee in a cosy café while a Braille book sits beside her. Coffee machine and coffee cups are neatly stacked in the background.
Photograph by Mikhail Nilov

Signs of Internalized Ableism

  1. You think you’re a burden. You feel guilty and embarrassed in public spaces as you imagine that you’re causing an inconvenience for able-bodied people around you. You don’t believe you ‘deserve’ accommodations. You’re prone to lowering your standards, thinking that you should not expect the same benefits as able-bodied people. You’re reluctant to ask for help, not wanting to create a fuss, be troublesome, and reinforce stereotypes that disabled people are difficult.
  2. You think you’re romantically/sexually undesirable. You don’t understand why anyone able-bodied would really want to be with you and perhaps suspect that they’re with you because they want to look like a hero.
  3. You have low expectations for yourself. You accept others’ perception and treatment of you as less than human. You feel worthless because that’s how ableist people see you.
  4. You feel like you have to prove to others that you’re ‘really’ disabled. For those whose disabilities are less visible, you feel like you don’t measure up to what society has deemed disabled is supposed to look like. You worry that people will think you’re lying about or exaggerating your disability. Over time, the systemic gaslighting may lead you to feel like you’re ‘imagining’ your disability.
  5. You feel like you have to prove that disabled people can be exceptional. You bear the responsibility to prove to others that disabled people are worthy by ableist standards. You pressure yourself to work harder and better than your able-bodied colleagues, you react to others’ underestimation of you by chasing whatever achievement you think will prove them wrong (and not what you necessarily want). You think you need to prove your worthiness to exist in this world when you give an inspirational speech about all the world records you broke. Where you can, you try to ‘pass’ for able-bodied.

Healing from Internalized Ableism

The problem of disablism and ableism does not lie with disabled people. Able-bodied people, predominantly middle-class, cisgender, heterosexual, white men, have created the physical and social world on their terms.

Known as the social model of disability, ‘disability’ is socially constructed through the ableist ideology that has sought to exclude ‘undesirable’ bodies from society.

‘Disability’ is then not caused by any impairment, deficiency, or difference, but by barriers in our physical and social world that prevent everybody’s access.

When disability advocates and activists fight for a more inclusive and hospitable world, they’re not simply fighting for other disabled people. Their struggles make the world more liveable for all of us.

In this conversation between Patty Berne and Stacey Milbern, they confront the violent assumptions able-bodied have about living as a disabled person and point to ableism (and not being disabled) as the source of suffering.

For disabled people to truly heal from internalized ableism, able-bodied people need to do our part to support and amplify their struggles for disability justice. We need to stay committed to remaking our world into one that allows all bodies to live, move, engage, contribute (not necessarily produce), and find comfort, joy, and pleasure.

In social justice activism, counter-storytelling is a powerful method for challenging oppression. If the dominant narrative in society that disabled people are less than human, what are the counteracting narratives you can tell to challenge this false and damaging view?

The process below for overcoming internalized oppression, adapted from Suzanne Lipsky’s work, helps you to reflect on your experiences and find your own truths about disability.

  1. Learn as much as you can about internalized ableism. Form trusted circles to raise your collective consciousness about how systemic ableism functions in your culture and society.
  2. Critically reflect on the ways internalized ableism have impacted your identity and your life.
  3. Seek counseling and healing on your memories of internalized ableism, incidents where you’ve been harmed by the internalized ableism of other disabled people, and incidents where your own internalized ableism has harmed other disabled people. The following writing prompts may be helpful as a starting point for reflection:
    • What has been good about being disabled?
    • What makes me proud of being disabled?
    • What are disabled people really like?
    • What has been difficult about being disabled?
    • What do I want other disabled people to know about me?
    • How have I been hurt by my own people?
    • When do I remember standing up against the mistreatment of one disabled person by another?
    • When do I remember being strongly supported by another disabled person?
    • When do I remember that another disabled person really stood up for me?
    • When do I remember acting on a feeling of internalized oppression or ableism?
    • When do I remember resisting and refusing to act on this basis?
  4. Commit yourself to taking bold steps towards overcoming habits of internalized ableism.
  5. Continually share information about overcoming internalized oppression with others in your community.
  6. Translate your progress into effective liberation activities in the wider world.

To help you reflect on the powerful questions above more easily, I have a workbook that you can download to fill in your responses.

Critical to intersectional healing and liberation is ongoing self-care that centers expressions and celebrations of disabled joy.

At the end of this post, I’ve included some links to disabled bloggers, vloggers, and other content creators who speak from their standpoint and offer vital insights into the theoretical frameworks I’ve shared here. Please read and follow their invaluable work.

Disabled people are not a litmus test for how well your life is doing by comparison.

Imani Barbarin
A woman in a wheelchair wears an olive striped shirt and cream pants, chopping avocados in her kitchen while her tabby cat lays on the kitchen counter
Photograph by Marcus Aurelius

Conclusion

Ableism is a pervasive and pernicious ideology in our society that insists disabled people are broken and deficient and must either be cured or excluded from society and public life.

Like other interlocking forms of systemic oppression such as sexism and racism, an effect of ableism is that it can be accepted and internalized by disabled people.

All of us, regardless of what our body can and cannot do, can begin to recognize the ways the ableist ideology have organized human value around arbitrary notions of ability. Ableism doesn’t stand alone, but intersects with and reinforces sexism, homophobia, transphobia, racism, colonialism, and capitalism.

With this knowledge, we may follow the lead of disabled thinkers, educators, and activists and support their struggles toward remaking a more hospitable world for everybody.

Learn More

Fiona A. Kumari Campbell (2006) Exploring internalized ableism using critical race theory. Disability & Society, 23(2), 151–162.

Access Living (2019, December 12). Ableism 101: What it is, what it looks like, and what we can do to fix it. https://www.accessliving.org/newsroom/blog/ableism-101/

E.J.R. David (2013) Internalized Oppression: The Psychology of Marginalized Groups

Sins Invalid (n.d.) Skin, Tooth, and Bone: The Basis of Movement is Our People

Alice Wong (2020) Disability Visibility: First-Person Stories from the Twenty-First Century

Disability Visibility (2020, July 12) at Politics and Prose.

Moving at the Speed of Trust: Disability Justice and Transformative Justice (2020, April 10) at the Barnard Center for Research on Women

Please follow and read the work of disability bloggers and vloggers:

Please don’t hesitate to let me know if there are other important resources you believe need to be included here.

Featured image by Marcus Aurelius

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