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Albinism,  Blindness & Visual Impairment,  Disability,  Everyday Life

Internalized Ableism: When Society Doesn’t Work

How many times have I found myself listening to the voices of others inside my own head; others who don’t know my experiences, who don’t know the many challenges I’ve faced, who don’t know about the many failures I’ve faced, and who don’t know how often I’ve been broken by a society that could not care less about me as a disabled person.

Let’s unpack that.

Defining Ableism in the Real World

When we think of ableism, we often think of open discrimination. We think of hate speech or hate crimes. Sometimes we even think of a lack of ramps at building entrances. These examples barely scratch the surface of our society’s ableism. Sure, many of us have faced discrimination. Many of us have heard hateful remarks about our disabilities, especially if we do any kind of advocacy on the internet.

But the world is definitively not built for disabilities. Do you want to know why that’s a problem? According to the CDC, one in four Americans deal with disability in their lives that will affect their day-to-day activities. That is 61 MILLION people! I’m just going to let that sink in.

We are building our world for only three quarters of our population. How do we ignore an entire chunk of the population? How do we look at that amount of people and say, “ah, but that’s not MY problem“?

That is the world we live in. It’s not news. It doesn’t only apply to the disabled community, but I’ll leave that topic for someone else more qualified.

What is Ableism?

Ableism can be defined as discrimination in favor of able-bodied people. It can be the big things like a lack of access physically to a building, lack of access to education, lack of access to voting, and the list goes on. It can also be an attitude or subconsciously held belief. One example of such a belief is that disabled people are worth less than able-bodied people. The assumption is often that our lives are worth less and that we don’t have dreams or desires and that we are that way willingly. Another ableist thought is that accommodating a disabled person is extra work, and why would someone think that work is worth it if they already believe we are worth less than they are?

Here’s an example I see quite a lot. You see someone park in a disabled parking spot, and they get out of their car and walk into the store. Tell me, what is the first thought that pops into your head as you walk from your spot in the back of the often way-too-hot paved parking lot. If you’re thinking, “they don’t look disabled,” then you, my friend, are contributing to ableism in your own mind.

Assuming you know someone’s experience, judging them on that assumption, and then also expecting them to justify their own disability to you is the very basis of ableism. So many people believe that a person with a disability should have to explain their disability and even show proof that they’re disabled to a random stranger on the street or on the internet. This is ableism at its very core.

How Do I Stop Ableism in Myself?

If you find yourself asking this question, good on you. That’s a big part of the journey. There are some really easy things you can do to learn about disabilities and the disabled experience.

Follow Disabled Creators

Search disabled hashtags on whatever social media platform you use and find disabled creators talking about their experience. Then, just listen. Don’t ask questions. Don’t make assumptions. Just LISTEN. Not every disabled person you come across is trying to be an advocate. Some of them are just trying to live their lives on social media like everyone else. Many of them just share things they love like makeup, music, art, writing, gaming, etc. It’s natural to be curious how they do these tasks with their disabilities, but just watch and listen.

It’s important to note that many of us are open to questions even if that means we hear the same five questions over and over and over, but asking questions shouldn’t be your only thought when joining a stream or leaving a comment!

The number of live streams and posts I’ve seen of disabled creators just showing off what they love doing where strangers come in with negative assumptions in the form of a questions is astounding. I’ve seen questions like: “how do you do that if you’re ___?” “How can you type if you can’t see?” “How can you drive if you’re a wheelchair user?” These questions go on and on and on endlessly. The questions are generally much ruder than my examples as well.

Google Your Questions

Sure, it’s natural to have questions. It’s awesome to be curious, but Google search cost you zero dollars. If you have a question, chances are high that someone out there (much like me) has written an article about it or made a video or talked on a podcast about it. Go to google before asking a creator a question that I can guarantee they have answered many times.

Stop Assuming We’re All the Same

As much as it’s true that disabled people share so much in common, we are not all the same. We don’t all start from the same place. Stop assuming every blind person should act or live like Molly Burke. I have seen this one so many times. A blind creator will be sharing about their experience from a place of openness and vulnerability, and someone interjects with a statement like, “but that’s not how Molly Burke says that works!” Now, this in no way is meant as shade toward Molly herself. I’ve heard her say in her videos many, many, many times that she does NOT speak for every blind person. Some people just refuse to hear that.

The blind community is the one I’m most familiar with, but I’m certain this happens in other communities with other prominent disabled creators.

Stop Assuming Media Represents Us Accurately

The media representation of disabled people is there if you know where to look, but it’s most often inaccurate. This inaccuracy often happens because writers don’t take the time to talk to disabled people when writing. They often start from a place of assumptions and ignorance. They assume their skill alone is enough to make something high quality but often toss accurate representation to the side. Representation often doesn’t seem as important as success when money is involved.

If you look, you will find disabled writers, creators, actors, producers, and more out there. Those are the creators we need to support in making more content with disability representation. More qualified people than me have compiled lists of disabled creators and their works featuring disabled characters and experiences. Have a nice Google search and find some. That’s an excellent place to start.

How Does Internalized Ableism Hurt Others?

If you made it this far and you’re wondering why what you think inside your head matters to the world at large, thank you. Thank you for asking that question and looking for an actual answer. Internalized ableism quickly becomes a societal problem because we are constantly communicating our inner thoughts in all kinds of ways. Those thoughts flavor your comments online, how you raise children, how you interact with friends and family, and how you do tasks at your job. Spreading your inner ableist thoughts then translates into workplace expectations, city planning, building and home construction, and many other key aspects that affect our daily lives.

If you’re like me and you are a disabled person who has fought their very own battle with internalized ableism, hello. It’s nice to not feel alone.

For more information and links to resources, please check below.

Stay curious.

Resources

To learn more about Albinism specifically, check out Albinism: What is it & What Do I See? and Why Can’t Glasses Fix My Vision? The Albinism Perspective.

For a growing list of resources and content by other disabled creators, visit my Helpful Resources page.

5 Influencers with Disabilities You Need to Follow on Social Media by AmeriDisability

Disability! 20 Great Books – All by Disabled Authors by The Catchpoles

Disability Influencers: The Who’s Who to Follow on Social Media by Direct Emplyers Association

8 Disabled Influencers to Follow This Disability Pride Month by Disability Horizons

I have Albinism and am legally blind. I have a Master's degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling. I'm currently pursuing my passion of writing through this blog and for the Albinism InSight magazine.

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