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Internalized Ableism

For a YouTube series on ableism including a video on internalized ableism, please see this playlist (about 45 mins runtime total). There's a couple issues with the series, but the scope and how well thought-out it is overall is good.

What it is not

It's not something one ought to use in a shaming way to defend oneself or push onto others in a gatekeeping or shaming manner. The videos above make it obvious that the term "internalized ableism" has been coopted as an attack in some communities. It is not something between bodies. It's something within one's own mind/body, and it's a barrier to self-acceptance that needs to be overcome.

What it is

Internalized ableism is what happens when we have not fully accepted and embraced our limitations, when we withhold our own need for accommodations or access and fail to advocate for ourselves, when we judge ourselves against the abilities of others and find ourselves wanting, when we think we deserve to be treated poorly because we are ourselves disabled, thus we are less-than, when we feel ashamed of our disabilities, etc. It's an internal process, not an external process against others.

So internalized ableism can have myriad issues within plural systems of course, because we have a lot more going on internally than a singular person experiencing internalized ableism.

Sometimes many members of one's system can be ableist towards each other or your& shared life. Sometimes it's just a few. But this can become a system trust issues that undermines functionality, energy, and can push your system beyond its limits, so can be addressed as a trust issue.

Some forms of plurality are disabling, and many folk who are plural have other disabilities & neurodivergence issues that indicate that reasonable accommodations and modifications of life expectations would normally be in order.

We are experiencing internalized ableism when we:

  • have not yet fully absorbed our disabilities and adjusted our expectations of ourselves.
  • put "able" expectations on ourselves.
  • blow off our disabilities.
  • have unreasonable expectations about our ability in spite of "known" issues.
  • add on "extra" expectations to "compensate" for (apologize for, make up for, add padding for) our disabilities.
  • push ourselves to "overcome" things that are obvious disabilities.
  • push ourselves to behave "normally" or to do "normal" or "able" things at our own expense (such as neglecting our own needs or self-care).
  • have unreasonable expectations about what we can or "should" be doing. Double note: any "shoulds" also add internalized shaming to the issue.
  • perpetuate stigma about our own disability through our own behavior.
  • are ashamed of our disability being "found out".
  • are ashamed about experiencing stigma for having a disability.
  • feel less worthy, valuable, important, sexy, desirable, because of our own disabilities.
  • feel like a burden, a non-productive member of society, like we ought to be marginalized or "forgotten" because we are disabled.
  • having imposter syndrome about needing help or assistance (I'm not "really" disabled so I don't need these accommodations).
  • comparing yourself to other disabled people in a "more" or "less" disabled than way.
  • comparing your abilities to able people and always feeling like you can/should/ought to push harder to match them.
  • internalizing stigma, oppression, ridicule, things you've heard others say about people with disabilites, movie messages, myths, stereotypes, etc. (becoming self-oppression).

Examples of internalized abliesm include, but are not limited to:

  • me never ever thinking that other disabled folk "should" push, or skip self-care, but somehow thinking I can
  • being embarrassed that we forget past events even though we have "beyond normal forgetting" due to DID amnesias & dissociation
  • being ashamed we can't tell people apart or remember their name even though we already are aware we experience face blindness due to autism
  • thinking we can "just" do better or if only we XYZ then we won't have to struggle with the thing.
  • Not getting the full-body physical therapy (PT) exercise that is recommended for Ehler-Danlos Syndrome (hypermobile subtype) i.e. hEDS — but still thinking that I can push myself without slowly building up good tone, and then wondering why I've strained a muscle, torn a ligament, or ended up with a frozen shoulder, etc.
  • Someone with college accommodations who didn't hand in request forms for separate test location & extra time accommodations when tests were coming up because "I'll be OK" (but then flunking out of college).
  • Someone who pushes themselves, and ends up hurting themselves.
  • A person that has only enough spoons to do work and collapses outside work hours — because they "gave everything at the office" including (but not limited to) the energy or executive function needed for eating/cooking/cleaning/laundry/bathing/etc.
  • Pushing harder than even able people do, working through breaks, working longer hours, working through lunch breaks, expecting more productivity, pushing to be the best in spite of no incentives, to "make up for" any potential perceptions of being disabled.
Internalized Ableism Bingo
"Okay but what if I'm faking it?"New symptoms, not going to the doctorsDoing the. thing and having to recover for days"I'm not letting my illness stop me"Not asking for help
"Other people have it worse"Not wanting to be an inconvenience"Oh I'm fine!" *is in agony*"This is totally normal""I'm just trying to get sympathy"
Not wanting to say you're "disabled""I'm taking this from someone who REALLY needs it"FREE SPACENot taking simple precautions"Today is just an off day"
"I'm sure it's nothing"Smiling through the pain for other peoples' sake"I'm not defined by my life-changing diagnosis"Tries to push through the pain"Sure, I can do that"
Not mentioning something is bad for you"I'm just lazy"Feeling guilty for feeling bad"I'm not REALLY disabled""I'm just being dramatic"

(borrowed from Reddit, typed up to be more accessible)

Why We Develop Internalized Ableism

At the core, we have internalized ableism because we have been steeped in ableist culture, and held to ableist expectations — so much so that we hold ourselves to them even when we fully have achieved compassion and realistic expectations for other people.

We are indoctrinated to ableism via societal stigma and discrimination against people with disabilities, lack of representation and role-models in media and culture, and ableism from family and friends.

Plural systems may also experience additional sources of internalized ableism, such as internal conflicts within the system about disability and identity, trauma related to disability or ableism, or the pressure to present as "normal" or "able" in order to fit into societal norms. There's not only general social stigma for mental illness or mental disabilities, but additional stigma from the propagation of myths & violent stereotypes in the media.

For example, a system member with a physical disability may feel pressure to hide or downplay their disability in order to fit into able-bodied social circles. Similarly, a system member with a cognitive disability may feel ashamed of needing accommodations or assistance, or may be internalizing messages from society that suggest they are not capable or intelligent.

Many times we have witnessed other people with disabilities being oppressed, abused, excluded, shamed, shunned, maligned, doubted — and we understandably & unconsciously do not want to suffer the social issues of ableism. We hide our disabilities reflexively in a self-protective mechanism that both hurts ourselves, and also continues to set expectations that disabled people can continually push themselves beyond sustainable means and "just" do things that end up having a high cost in both the short & long run.

Shame & Internalized Ableism

Shame New and internalized ableism are often closely intertwined, and can create a vicious cycle that perpetuates both. When individuals with disabilities internalize negative messages about their abilities, it can lead to feelings of shame and inadequacy, which can in turn drive them to work harder and strive for perfectionism. However, this can also lead to burnout New, as well as an unwillingness to ask for accommodations or support that could make their work easier and more manageable.

A person with a disability may feel shame about needing accommodations or support, and therefore may be reluctant to ask for what they need. They may also internalize negative attitudes about disability from society, leading them to believe that they should be able to "overcome" their disability and function as if they did not have it. This can lead to a vicious cycle of shame and self-blame when they are unable to meet these unrealistic expectations.

Internalized ableism can also get tied up with shame cycles — so shame + internalized ableism can cause people to become perfectionists, terrified that they might miss a deadline, or do sub-par work and get "found out" or thought of as less-than. They may push too hard, doing something today that drives them further into disability tomorrow, then feel ashamed when they don't have the resiliency, energy or ability to keep up their appearance of being able. Thus, even though they may be fully aware they have a disability, and likely should request some type of accommodation (extra time, assistance, different expectations, changes in work hours, remote work or hybrid work, assistive technology, more breaks or time off, etc.), they suppress their needs and push for productivity now only to be ashamed later that they cannot continue to meet, match or beat prior expectations. Rather than adjust so that they can be productive at a reasonable rate indefinitely, they may push so hard they end up more disabled and completely unable to work.

What to do about it

Overcoming internalized ableism can be a difficult process, but it is an important step in accepting and embracing one's disability. Some strategies that can be helpful include:

  • Education and awareness: Learning about disability, ableism, and disability culture can help to challenge internalized ableism and stigma. This can involve reading books, following disabled activists and advocates on social media, or attending disability-focused events or workshops.
  • Self-reflection and self-compassion: Recognizing and accepting one's own limitations, and learning to be kind to oneself, can be important steps in overcoming internalized ableism. This may involve challenging negative self-talk, practicing self-care, and seeking out supportive communities.
  • Advocacy and activism: Advocating for oneself and others with disabilities can help to challenge societal ableism and promote greater acceptance and accessibility. This can involve advocating for accommodations in school or work, speaking out against ableist language or behavior, or getting involved in disability rights organizations.
  • Community support: Building relationships with other disabled people can be a powerful way to challenge internalized ableism and find support and acceptance. This can involve connecting with other disabled people online or in-person, joining disability-focused support groups or communities, or seeking out therapy or counseling from a professional with experience in disability-related issues.

Overall, overcoming internalized ableism requires a commitment to self-acceptance, education, advocacy, and community support. By challenging ableist beliefs and embracing one's disability, it is possible to live a fulfilling and empowered life as a plural system with disabilities.

Journal or Internal Discussion Prompts

Here are some suggested journal prompts that reframe the ideas for recognizing and recovering from internalized ableism in a compassionate and non-shaming way:

  • How has our internalized ableism affected us individually and as a system?
  • How can we support each other in challenging and unlearning our ableist beliefs and behaviors around our own disabilities?
  • What are some of the ways we can practice self-compassion and self-care as we confront our internalized ableism?
  • How can we work towards creating a more inclusive and accessible environment for all of us, both internally and externally?
  • What are some strategies we can use to challenge negative self-talk and self-doubt related to our disabilities or neurodivergent experiences?
  • How can we better listen to the concerns, insecurities, and struggles of our headmates, and help support them better in their struggles with our disabilities?
  • How can we acknowledge and celebrate our strengths and accomplishments, even if they may not fit into traditional ableist standards of success?
  • What can we do to welcome, honor, and cherish each other in our system, and ensure that we all feel valid and included?
  • What are some ways we can support and advocate for other disabled and neurodivergent individuals, both within and outside of our system?
  • How can we cultivate a sense of pride and empowerment around our disabilities and neurodivergent experiences, rather than shame or embarrassment?
  • What accommodations, allowances or assistive technology can we employ that will help us conserve or recover spoons?
  • What are some practical steps we can take to make our environment more accessible and accommodating for everyone in our system, such as using assistive technology or modifying our routines and habits?
  • How can we hold ourselves and each other accountable for challenging and unlearning our ableist beliefs and behaviors, while still acknowledging that this is a process and not an overnight transformation?

Group Discussion Prompts

Here's some group discussion prompts about ableism for general use:

  • What is internalized ableism, and how can it harm individuals with disabilities?
  • Have you ever experienced internalized ableism? If so, how did it manifest, and how did you overcome it?
  • What are some of the false societal beliefs about worthiness, and how can individuals reject them?
  • How can individuals rewire their brains to focus on positivity and self-love?
  • How can surrounding oneself with others in the disability community help combat internalized ableism?
  • Have you ever witnessed or been a part of ableist behavior? How did it make you feel, and how can you work to prevent it in the future?
  • In what ways can society work to become more inclusive and accepting of individuals with disabilities, and how can we all contribute to this effort?
  • How can individuals with disabilities advocate for themselves and their needs, and what resources are available to help with this?
  • Can you think of any examples of ableism in popular media or culture? How can we challenge and change these harmful portrayals?
  • How can we celebrate and uplift the voices and experiences of individuals with disabilities, and what role can allyship play in this process?

Internalized Ableism, Language & Culture

As internalized ableism has roots in shame, oppression, and stigma, much of internalized ableism has to do with our culture and shows up in use of language in different cultures.

  • Language and culture are interconnected, and both can influence our beliefs and attitudes about disability. For example, certain languages may use disability-related terms that are stigmatizing or offensive, while others may use more respectful and inclusive language.
  • Culture can also influence our perceptions of disability, including what types of impairments are considered "acceptable" or "unacceptable." For instance, some cultures may view certain types of disabilities as a personal failing or a source of shame, while others may view them as a natural part of the human experience.
  • Internalized ableism can manifest in our language use and cultural practices, such as when we avoid discussing disability-related issues or fail to include people with disabilities in our social and cultural activities.
  • It's important to be mindful of the language and cultural practices we use when talking about or interacting with people with disabilities. This includes avoiding stigmatizing or offensive language and promoting inclusive cultural practices that value and celebrate the diversity of human experience.
  • It may be helpful to recognize that people with disabilities are not a monolithic group, and there is significant diversity within disability communities. As such, we should strive to be respectful and inclusive of all individuals with disabilities, regardless of their specific impairments or cultural backgrounds.

Socioeconomic Issues & Internalized Ableism

Internalized ableism can also intersect with socioeconomic issues such as capitalism, socialism, and other economic systems.

In a capitalist system, for example, disabled individuals may be perceived as "unproductive" or "less valuable" because of their disabilities, leading to discrimination and exclusion from the workforce. This can lead to internalized ableism, where disabled individuals may believe that they are a burden on society or that they are not capable of contributing to the economy.

On the other hand, in a socialist system, disability may be viewed as a social issue that requires community support and resources to ensure that all individuals have access to equal opportunities and support. However, even in socialist systems, disabled individuals may still experience internalized ableism due to negative societal attitudes and cultural stigmas towards disability.

Therefore, it is important to recognize that internalized ableism can intersect with various societal and cultural issues, including economic systems. Understanding these intersections can help to address and challenge ableism on a systemic level, while also supporting disabled individuals in challenging and overcoming internalized ableism.

Additional Concerns and Topics Around Internalized Ableism

Additional points about internalized ableism that may be missing from the articles and exercises above:

  • Intersectionality: Internalized ableism intersects with other forms of oppression, such as racism, sexism, homomisia, transmisia, and classism. For example, disabled people of color may face discrimination that is both ableist and racist, while disabled women may face discrimination that is both ableist and sexist. It's important to acknowledge and address these intersections to fully understand and combat internalized ableism.
  • Different experiences: Not all disabled people have the same experiences with internalized ableism. Some may experience it more than others, or in different ways. It's important to recognize that internalized ableism is not a one-size-fits-all experience, and to listen to and validate the experiences of individual disabled people.
  • Trauma: Many disabled people have experienced trauma as a result of their disability or experiences of ableism. This trauma can contribute to internalized ableism and make it more difficult to unlearn. It's important to recognize and address this trauma in order to effectively combat internalized ableism.
  • Language: Language plays a powerful role in shaping attitudes towards disability and can contribute to internalized ableism. For example, using derogatory terms like "crippled" or "retarded" can reinforce negative attitudes towards disability and contribute to internalized ableism. It's important to use language that is respectful and empowering of disabled people.
  • Positive representation: Positive representation of disability can help combat internalized ableism by providing disabled people with role models and examples of disability pride. This representation can come in many forms, such as books, movies, TV shows, and social media. It's important to seek out and support positive representations of disability.


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