Dec 02, 2021
6 mins read
Fighting My Internalized Ableism
My internalized ableism and I are doing battle and I’m going to win because I’m stubborn AF.
Photo by Sarah Cervantes on Unsplash
“Internalized oppression is not the cause of our mistreatment; it is the result of our mistreatment. It would not exist without the real external oppression that forms the social climate in which we exist. Once oppression has been internalized, little force is needed to keep us submissive. We harbour inside ourselves the pain and the memories, the fears and the confusions, the negative self-images and the low expectations, turning them into weapons with which to re-injure ourselves, every day of our lives.” (Marks, 1999, p. 25).
What is Ableism?
Bogart & Dunn (2019) defined ableism as “stereotyping, prejudice, discrimination, and social oppression toward people with disabilities”.
Ableism is the discrimination against, and oppression of, disabled people based on a societal belief that being abled is “normal” and is preferred. In the neurodiverse community, this would be the assumption that being neurotypical is inherently better than being neurodiverse.
Internalizing this faulty belief happens because we are taught, and socialized with, this ideology for so long that we start to believe it ourselves. I’ve come to realize that internalized ableism is keeping me from being my authentic self.
I don’t mean that in the buzzword of the week, “living my truth” toxic positivity sense. I mean I am still hiding parts of myself, masking what I think needs to be hidden so that I will be accepted and taken seriously as an intellectual, as a professional, and as a person.
Well, fuck that, and fuck ableism.
I’ve never been one to back down from a fight, so bring it on, ableism: come test. I’m ready now.
Note to Self: I can be neurodiverse and still be an intelligent, successful professional.
I’ve been writing on Medium for about 2 1/2 months now, and I caught myself in my own hypocrisy this week. I preach neurodiversity pride, accepting differently wired brains as valuable, and educating ourselves so that we stop expecting people with disabilities to conform to the majority.
I write stories for different audiences. Some of my stories are aimed at parents of neurodiverse children, helping them better understand their children so that they can provide a supportive and nurturing home environment. Some stories are written for my fellow neurodivergents and for anyone who wants to learn and read about mental health challenges.
Confession: I was only sharing the educational, one-step removed posts on my business social media. I wasn’t fully coming out of the closet as a neurodiverse person myself, with complex needs and a complex brain.
I’m not advocating for sharing one’s entire life story on social media, especially not on a business page. There was, however, an intentional cherry-picking for the stories that put me in the best light. I was only sharing stories wherein I hid behind the over-intellectualizing of neurodiversity, rather than embracing it as part of who I am.
Quote by Bernard M. Baruch, image created by author
What’s Wrong with That?
Well, nothing, in theory. People have the right to share or not share whatever parts of themselves they wish. My business is my business… except that it is my business… my literal business. I work as an entrepreneur supporting and advocating for neurodiverse children.
The fact that society requires us to hide our differences in order to be successful is a form of institutionalized, or structural, ableism (Beratan, 2006). In order for a person with a disability to be highly successful, they often have to minimize or hide their disability. So when we neurodiverse folks look up to accomplished people, it’s harder to find successful people like ourselves to whom we can relate.
That sends the wrong message. Neurodiverse children who aspire to great things should be encouraged, and they should be able to find role models that look, think, and sound like them. That starts with making it okay to be neurodiverse, and making it part of how and why we are successful, as opposed to this thing we “overcame” and left behind.
I’m doing okay. I’m not shortlisted for the Nobel prize or anything, but I’m doing okay. I’m successful in part becauseof my neurocomplexities, not just in spite of them, and I certainly can’t leave them behind anywhere.
I don’t want to paint a rosy picture of something that is not always rosy. Having a brain like mine certainly comes with its share of challenges, and it is important to acknowledge that, but to discount the benefits of a differently wired brain would be, well, narrow-minded.
What if I’m Not Ready to be a Role Model?
We don’t all have to be “out and proud” neurodivergents either. Not everyone wants to be an ambassador for their disability and that is equally valid. It shouldn’t always be our job to educate the ill-informed.
Okay, fair point. But what about self-acceptance?
If I am making a conscious choice to only share parts of myself in the spaces where I feel comfortable, that’s probably an example of setting healthy boundaries.
On the flip side, by internalizing ableism, I am viewing myself as less than because my brain is different from the neurotypical majority. I am denying to myself the realities of who I am because I think they make me less valuable or less worthy. That’s not so healthy.
Not everyone wants to be a crusader, and we don’t always have the mental and emotional energy to fight. I’ve been working on picking my battles, and this is one I choose right now: I am not less capable because of my neurodifferences. The experiences I’ve had learning about complex neurology, advocating for myself and others, and facing challenges that come along with all of that make me uniquely qualified for the work that I do.
I’m knowledgeable, I’m educated, and I’m neurocomplex. If I present myself as the intelligent, professional woman with a weird brain and quirky personality that I am, then that’s how most people will see me.
And the rest can kick rocks.
Quote by Tony Gaskins, image created by author
Once You’ve Identified Your Internalized Ableism
Once you’ve identified your internalized ableism, you can begin to dismantle it. And once you’ve begun that process, you can move from accepting your divergent brain to celebrating it:
Armstrong, T. (2015). The Myth of the Normal Brain: Embracing Neurodiversity. American Medical Association Journal of Ethics, 17(4), 348–352. [doi: https://10.1001/journalofethics.2015.17.4.msoc1–1504].
Beratan, G.D. (2006). Institutionalizing Inequity: Ableism, Racism and IDEA 2004. Disability Studies Quarterly, 26(2). [https://dsq-sds.org/article/view/682/859].
Bogart, K.R. and Dunn, D.S. (2019), Ableism Special Issue Introduction. Journal of Social Issues, 75: 650–664. [https://doi.org/10.1111/josi.12354].
Marks, D. (1999). Disability: Controversial Debates and Psychosocial Perspectives. Routledge.