Telling Myself the Truth: 5 Strategies for Fighting Internalized Ableism
The first time I said I was gay out loud, I ran to the bathroom and threw up. I know what you’re thinking: repressive family, conservative church, red state, right? Well, sorry – none of that was true. My embarrassingly liberal parents (who are definitely reading this right now) raised us to not give a shit, whether about sexuality, societal expectation, or anything that didn’t make us happy. So I honestly don’t know how I came to hate being queer so much. We love to trace toxic thinking back to one source because it feels good to point the finger. But self-loathing rarely walks a path that neat. Logic won’t necessarily extinguish the shame in your stomach. And as certainly and instantly as I knew I liked other girls, I knew I didn’t want to.
I soon learned to call that feeling internalized homophobia. Mine simmered down after about three years thanks to more queer friends, a ton of sociological theory, and just not having the energy to feel that awful anymore. It’s like when your all-consuming crush on someone dies the second you admit it: as soon as I gave my queerness some air, I could settle into it. But it took almost a decade after that for me to treat my disability with the same care. I didn’t even hear the world “ableism” until my last year of college – and not because it came up in class, but because I stumbled across it myself. Let me say that again: in my left-wing dream of a liberal arts education, the kind that prides itself on exposing and unpacking prejudice, no one told me ableism existed.
That’s because it’s still completely acceptable for disabled people to hate ourselves. Expected, even. Most discussions of ableism prioritize its external forms: staircases without ramps, misguided offers of help, applauding disabled people for being “so brave.” Disability itself remains something we “tolerate” or “live with” (but would, of course, “fix” if we could). That kind of ableism – that turns us against ourselves by lying about what success, politeness, health, and independence look like – isn’t broadly acknowledged as internalized oppression yet. But we can still start unlearning it.
Here’s what’s worked for me so far.
1. Reading. A lot.
In that final college year, I came across an article called “Towards an Affirmation Model of Disability.” It outlined a concept called the “affirmative model,” which, in full academese:
… is essentially a non-tragic view of disability and impairment which encompasses positive social identities, both individual and collective, for disabled people grounded in the benefits of life style and life experience of being impaired and disabled.
Translation: you can understand (and even enjoy) your disability as an identity. Not a medical condition, or bad luck, or a giant liability in your social, romantic, and professional life. It doesn’t exist in opposition to who you are; it is, in fact, essential.
I read that line at least four times before being able to move on. It sounds sad now, but I honestly didn’t know I could feel good about my disability. I thought coping with it was the best I could hope for. That was the language I knew; people applauded me for “dealing so well” and “not letting it affect me” all the time. But apply the affirmative model, and you start to see how backhanded those compliments are. They ask you to deny a fundamental part of yourself. And as a gay lady who’d been out for years, I was not in that business anymore.
That article introduced me to disability studies – and in turn, crip theory, disability lit, and disabled culture. I cannot say enough for the reading material I ate up during that time (and continue to seek out). It forced me to confront my own biases, revealed the kaleidoscopic nature of disability as a whole, and confirmed that not all disabled folks wish we were able-bodied. No one tells you that! Nondisabled people are happy to let you assume they know best and are the gold standard for a reason. So if you want anything other than the party line on disability (i.e. it sucks and we’re sorry), you need to consume work for and by disabled folks. Fortunately, there’s more out there than ever before, and not all comes courtesy of inscrutable academia. Look, you don’t even have to leave Autostraddle to get started.
2. Writing. A lot.
Ableism tells us that being disabled is fine as long as you never discuss it. You can still be likable if you downplay its effects – but talk about it too much or too honestly, and people won’t know what to do with you. No one wants to hear that. What a downer. Stop being dramatic. I don’t understand why this is such a big deal. Even if no one’s said as much to us outright, disabled folks learn to accommodate those points of view. We shut up and deal with our own problems so as to not further inconvenience anyone. We already take up so much space and time and energy; it’s the least we can do. Right?
Writing – first privately, then publicly – about my disability has allowed me to test that theory. And surprise, it’s mostly bullshit. Yes, some nondisabled people will either flinch or totally miss the point. But guess what: not everything is about them! And writing is what helped me realize that. Turns out I had a lot to say once I stopped caring about their reviews.
Disabled folks: if you’ve thought about writing, even in a journal only you will ever see, do it. No one tells our stories better than we do. Say it because it needs to be said. That is enough of a reason.
3. Finding disabled community.
I’ve lost count of how many times someone has said I “don’t look disabled” and expected me to thank them. For years, I obliged because I believed the same lie they did: that visibly disabled bodies count for less. As a white, cis, college educated, gainfully employed disabled person who gets around on her own two feet, I enjoy enough privilege to let those biases persist. Able-bodied people are quick to accept me into their fold; what they’re really saying is “you don’t scare me.” And while that felt good at first, it also allowed me to completely alienate myself from other disabled people – to the point where I didn’t have any disabled friends until last year. That’s well over two decades without any community. And truthfully, it could have gone on a lot longer and no one would have said anything. Ableism runs that deep.
After coming out, queer people are expected to seek our community near and far. It’s an accepted part of the process. You don’t have to be gay alone. But disabled folks don’t get that same push to find each other. The history of disability and social isolation is long and its legacy difficult to break. But thanks to the internet and the (however glacially) improving accessibility of the physical world, our community is more connected than ever – which means I had no excuse not to meet other disabled people. When I finally did, it made me realize just how much garbage I’d internalized about my own superiority and my comfort with certain bodies over others. Realizing how far the disabled community stretches forced me to reconsider my own boundaries, fight those reactionary biases, and do better. Able-bodied people can’t confront their ableism without knowing disabled people, and we can’t either. As with queerness, there is no way to do this by ourselves.
If you’re wondering where to start, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram are packed with disabled folks (including many of these badass ladies) doing awesome work.
4. Going to therapy.
I understand this isn’t an option for everyone. But starting therapy allowed me to acknowledge a messy truth I fought for far too long: that being disabled is really, really hard. I shied away from admitting that because I didn’t want to run the risk of pity; it’s already hard enough to convince people I’m not miserable. But again, ableism is what tells us we have to put a smile on and make it look easy. It perpetuates this expectation that disability be easily identifiable, understood, and manageable. The truth is it’s none of the above. No matter how strong a handle you have on your access needs, how expansive your support system, how sturdy your day-to-day routine, eventually you are just going to be fucking done. There’s no way around it. And when that time comes, there’s nothing quite like an honest-to-goodness trained professional to get you some coping skills.
As someone who fears talking too much and becoming annoying (thanks to a lifetime of ableist and sexist socialization oh god this article is already too long please still like me), I find it extremely helpful to have someone in my life whose job it is to listen. Because I pay her, I don’t have to worry that I’m wasting her time. I can’t be a burden because I am actually helping to pay her rent. It’s the perfect solution for someone as compulsively polite as I am.
5. Using (and resting) my body on my own terms.
I’ve gotten to know my body by using it more. I exercise a lot. I make sure to get outside at least twice a day. I take the train to work more often than I drive (a feat of note for any LA resident). And figuring out what my body likes to do has helped me debunk two big ableist myths: that my body is disgusting and will forever remain a mystery to me. Disabled people are expected to loathe how we look, always feel awful, and defer to doctors on any and all matters of bodily function. We can refuse to engage with our bodies and no one will question it. In fact, that disconnect is encouraged – able-bodied people learn early on to “see past” our disabilities, as if they’re detachable from who we “really” are. Because who would want a body like that anyway?
Look, this is the body I have. Sometimes it frustrates me and doesn’t exactly behave, but it’s mine. And as I’ve figured out how to use it instead of hate it, I’ve realized it can feel pretty good in here. For example, did you know I’m an excellent canoer? All the upper body strength I developed to compensate for my legs really comes in handy while rowing. For me exercise does the trick best; maybe for you it’s massages, sex, or tattoos. Anything that helps you connect to your body makes it that much harder to despise. And for disabled people to like (let alone love) our bodies is revolutionary.
Ableism also enjoys reminding us that we’re lazy if we can’t keep up. For a long time I assumed that meant I had to say yes to everything in order to prove myself. If I could achieve the most and stay the busiest, then of course I mattered as much as able-bodied people. I was succeeding by any standard and leaving no room for doubt. But spreading yourself that thin will inevitably burn you out. It’s just as (if not more) important to prioritize rest. I’ve found naps to be an excellent antidote to ableist self-talk, but even just resting your eyes works.
Give yourself permission to do nothing. I promise it feels great.