Thursday, April 30, 2015

Internalized Ableism

"I'm not disabled" a student of mine says, complaining to a teacher about how her peers were saying she was. "I know" is the basic reply of the teacher, telling her about what she can do, yet ignoring the fact that yes, she is disabled. That most of the people I work with are. That me, the person who is most praised in the school for my math ability, is disabled.

She calms down, but the way it is done, is by removing this, and later on, with others, she talks about when she goes to college, she will refuse to show them her IEP, refuse to ask for or accept any accommodations. She only wants to be normal. She doesn't want to be seen as different, doesn't want to see herself as different. She repeats, again and again how she isn't different at all, is normal. She's normal. She insists.

She must have forgotten that the person she was speaking to was disabled. I am open about my disability. The students talk to me about my autism and my migraines. I tell the other adults things about myself to advocate for the students, because sometimes its the best way I have. But now, there was a student telling me, how that wasn't her. Telling someone who accepts this part of herself how it is being rejected.

Everyone else was helping her reject it. The kids were teasing her for being disabled. The adults, reassuring her how normal she was, and saying how she wasn't disabled. Both weren't letting her have it be part of her, and weren't letting her have what she needed.

So instead, I ended up sitting down with her, explaining why she should get accommodations. I explained how they wouldn't make her a bad person. I explained why they wouldn't be her taking advantage of the school. I explained how what they were was instead helping match her education to her. And to help her, I truthfully said that I think everyone should have individualized education, not only disabled people.

We started going through what some accommodations would be that would help her in higher education, rather than limiting it to her IEP, when she goes to college, what are things that are appropriate for her to think about asking for (such as exams in rooms with small groups instead of large lecture halls)? And at the same time, what are things she can do to better her own education on her own (such as recording audio of all lectures on her phone). And slowly, the accommodations became part of her, they weren't something being done to her, someone claiming she needed things she didn't want because she wasn't good enough, they were something that she was controlling, strengthening herself.

Rather than an IEP being something that was people saying "you can't do things the normal way" like she had been taking it as, no matter how the teachers were actually speaking to her, her internalized ableism wasn't as strong, she could view herself as being able to use accommodations. The word "disability" applied to her didn't have as much a strength when it came to how insulted she felt.

Internalized ableism can affect people a lot. I've seen large amounts of self-hatred because of people hating their disability. I've seen large amounts of people refusing to admit they are disabled, because they don't want a "bad" thing associated with them. People refuse accommodations, refuse to do things that might make them look odd, refuse to do things associated with their disorder because they want to see themselves as normal - even when it is at the cost of being more symptomatic.

Actually using tools when they help is powerful. Actually using the accommodations you can can be the difference between managing and not. These can be challenging to do, because we're so used to being told not to, to not being able to, to having to fight to look normal. Sometimes, the first fight, or even biggest one, is against is ourselves.


  1. Thank you for this post and for contributing to Blogging Against Disablism Day!

    It's remarkable, the strength of the idea that accommodations might mean "cheating". When I was a student, it took me a long time to feel okay listening to my set texts as audiobooks, rather than reading - as if, taking in words through my ears was somehow less valid that taking them in through my eyes. I accepted that I needed rest breaks in exams, but I couldn't submit to having extra time - even though, my condition makes me much slower both to read and write. These days, I would have gone about things quite differently.

    I don't know if it would help a student who is so afraid of seeing herself as different, but your post put me in mind of this cartoon about the difference between equality and equity.

  2. I know exactly what you mean about the idea of accommodations/allowances that are requested, rather than imposed. When I first started the education journey that I'm on, I met up with a teacher of the deaf for an assessment as to my needs in the classroom. She insisted that I would also have regular sessions with a teacher of the deaf to go through my written work.

    "I don't need that", I said.
    "but... you must!" she said. She seemed consitutionally incapable of understanding that I felt my written English was sufficiently good enough (more than good enough) that I didn't need assistance and that I actually very strongly felt that having that assistance would constitute unfairness (to my classmates) and cheating on my part. She just could not understand why I felt it was unfair - that I felt strongly that since my disability was not impacting on my written English, that I did not need accommodations to help with it.*

    In the end, I won. The only time I had (and will ever have) assistance from a teacher of the deaf is for assistance with speaking, when I have to give a presentation with words I'm not confident about saying.

    On the other hand, I have had many other accommodations. smaller rooms for exams and extra time, interpreters, notetakers, technical equipment. and those have made a substantial difference to my ability to study and to compete with my abled classmates. But I CHOSE those. Before going to university I had a similar assessment with a professional, an independent agency, who, rather more wisely, sat down and actually asked me what I wanted, what I thought was best. He had a few suggestions to make of things I had not thought of, which were presented as options that I could take, not things I had to have. Inevitably the question came up of a teacher for the deaf giving assistance, and when I said "I don't need that", he accepted it - and in fact, I believe it is now phrased on my assistance documentation as "assistance from a speech therapist where necessary".

    Good on you for working with that student to help her understand the difference between accommodations that she chooses and that are imposed - one day, I hope, she'll look back on that conversation with you and understand that moment as the moment she reaches for acceptance of herself.


    * In the interests of fairness, I should add that many deaf people DO struggle with written English, with grammar construction and vocabulary, and many of them will need a teacher of the deaf to help them compete fairly. Anyone reading this, please do not take my experiences and statements as a representative of all deaf people's experiences.

  3. I am autistic and alexithymic, while my best friend has a chronic physical condition and debilitating anxiety. This post really, really resonated with me, and I intend to show it to her - no matter how awesome we are as advocates, every so often we need a reminder of the basics.