Internalised Ableism and Language - Murielle Müller

I didn’t know what internalised ableism meant until I encountered it first-hand. I tried to convince myself that my body had to be able to do and achieve the same things that able-bodied people can do and that I have to keep up in order to not be less worthy than them. Ableism is not a problem restricted to able-bodied people. Disabled people are confronted with it often enough because the concept is so deeply engraved into our societal behaviour that anything outside of this normative is considered “less than”. So insert a person with a disability or like me, with a chronic condition, into such a society and they can’t help but meet themselves with ableism. Disabled people are not free from ableist thinking; they make assumptions and statements founded in the internalised structure of ableism, which can either be directed towards other disabled people, but most often are directed towards themselves.

Based in ableist ideas, disabled people assume they are less worthy and can even begin to act that way towards themselves. This includes hiding their disability, not taking necessary medication, downplaying or ignoring symptoms, feeling like a burden and experiencing self-hatred. They are thus driven into a strong desire to be healthy and “normal” (again). Often, they encounter grief and loss over an abled identity, especially when the disability is a new condition in their lives. But the return to this life is not how it works for most people living with disabilities and/or chronic conditions. There is no reset button, no refund on that “broken” body and acceptance is the only way to deal with it, but it is very hard in a society that still enhances ableism, particularly in and through language.

Discrimination towards disabled people can happen quite directly. We are openly mistreated, and it is rarely ever talked about in media. But ableism also manifests itself in more subtle ways in interactions with others. Languages have the tendency – if you don’t make the effort to question expressions – to define disabled people by their disability: Someone is blind instead of having a visual impairment, someone is deaf, someone is diabetic, someone suffers from (insert variable chronic condition), someone is tied/confined/bound to their wheelchair. These expressions reduce people to their disability or convey that their life is not as liveable as an able-bodied person’s life.

Ableism additionally presents itself in social interactions when disability is questioned. Statements like “You don’t look disabled”, “Oh, so it’s not a real disability”, or euphemisms for disability like special needs, handicapped, or differently abled all question disability and its seriousness. Ableism also often reveals itself in metaphors such as “so and so is emotionally crippled”, jokes like “This cake was so sweet, I think I’ll get diabetes from it” or sayings like “it’s the blind leading the blind", "turning a deaf ear to", "turning a blind eye to” and many more, which ultimately undermine the seriousness and hard work that we have to put in to emotionally and physically live with disability. And yet, it remains socially acceptable to use such phrases because ableism is so engrained into our systems that if we don’t pay attention, it just slips by.

Most people don’t mean harm, but they have to realise the fault in the oppressive language and what it does to people living with disability. In some languages the word “disabled” is even used as an insult. English (and other languages!) has insulting expressions, particularly often built on mental illnesses: spazz, lunatic, moron, psycho.... Some of these comments make us feel like we’re only imagining our condition, even when we know that we are not, which results in constantly having to “prove” our illness. That again can be turned against us, being called out to seek attention through our disability. It seems no matter what we do, we can’t do it right. Living with a disability is already hard enough, and it becomes even harder through prejudice and discrimination.

Furthermore, ableism implements itself in so many layers of our daily life. Providing accessibility to all groups of disabled people still isn’t a priority as the definition of accessibility is quite often still limited to “visible” conditions and even for these groups of disabled people, proper accessibility is still a rarity. When ableism meets and greets disabled people, many of us living with disability often encounter a deep sense of inability that simply stems from the lack of accessibility. We are met with feelings of inadequacy and we slip into patterns of internalised ableism, which can go as far as ignoring our body’s needs because we just don’t want to admit our limitations to ourselves and others.

But the true limitation lies in internalised ableism. It holds us back from accepting the condition and prevents us from recognizing our abilities and the positive things in our life. Nonetheless, it is a crucial part of life with disability to accept that your condition(s) create real limitations and it is no big help when a society enforces ableism onto you as you try to adapt. You can be proud of your disabled identity and still grieve a pain-free and healthy body. And these feelings can exist side by side.

And then it’s also about realising that you don’t have to love living with disability and your symptoms all the time, or ever, but you can reject the ableist idea and not blame yourself, but the oppressive system.

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