What is Internalized Ableism?

Here are a couple examples of internalized ableism, and a few thoughts exploring what ableism is, how it gets so ingrained, and what the way out may be.
What is Internalized Ableism?

“I’m just lazy”

I just had a really interesting conversation with a client and they were trying to figure out why they weren’t able to do a particular thing, and never have really managed to do it. And I just asked,” Is (this kind of thing) going on?” And they were saying, “I don’t actually know, but it might be. Let me think about that.” And they thought about it, and we worked on it a little bit and refined that idea together. 

But then they made this comment, they said, “I just thought that I was always lazy.” See, that’s internalized ableism, and I wanted to bring this up because we so often jump to those conclusions. “Oh, I’m just lazy”, or “I didn’t try hard enough.”

And it’s usually because other people have said those things at us many, many times. “Oh, you’re just lazy. You’re not trying hard enough. Would you just please put in some effort? Can’t you just do (whatever it is)?” It becomes internalized when we turn that in on ourselves, you know? It’s, “Oh, I’m just lazy.”

The ableism there is trying to create a blanket answer to why you’re not doing something or why you are doing something. It’s this easy solution.

But the ableism there is trying to create a blanket answer to why you’re not doing something or why you are doing something. (Usually it’s not doing something, but it could go either way.)

It’s this easy solution, “Oh, you’re not doing it just because you’re lazy. It’s not because you have actual issues that you’re struggling with but you can’t articulate because you’re six years old or two years old. Or 34 years old, but you’ve never had it modeled for you so you don’t know how to do this. Or 55 years old, but again, you’ve never been shown that there’s a way to figure out what’s actually going on, so you’re still in that thought of, ‘Oh, I’m just lazy.'” 

There’s a reason why

But maybe there’s a reason why you’re not doing that thing. Maybe there’s a sensory issue going on. Maybe it’s overwhelming your nervous system. Maybe you physically don’t know how to do it or cognitively don’t know how to do it. Maybe you don’t know how to wrap your head around even asking, “Well, what about this? Or how would I deal with that if it comes up?” So your brain defaults to just not doing it. Then other people see that you’re not doing it and they just assume you’re not trying hard enough or that you’re lazy, or any other answers. It’s these blanket answers.

Other people see that you’re not doing it and they just assume you’re not trying hard enough or that you’re lazy, or any other answers.

(I know I’m fixating on the “lazy” and “not trying hard enough”, because those are what I’ve been thinking about lately, but there’s any number of reasons that might be given by an outside observer who just sees you not doing something and labels it without really investigating what it is.) 

If you haven’t had that modeled for you, that it is possible to investigate what’s going on and then how you might actually do that: You don’t really have a way to do it. Sometimes you figure it out anyway, you’re just self reflective enough and it works out, and the stars align or whatever. You manage to do it, because you do have a very powerful brain and it can solve lots of problems, but we often aren’t able to do that in many areas of our lives. Especially the ones that, at a young age, were labeled for us and we received this answer of why it is, and we’ve accepted it and internalized it, and now we don’t even think to question it in other areas. 

Okay, that’s my thought for the moment about internalized ableism. Wondering if any of this resonates for you? I’d love to hear in the comments if you want to share how this might apply to your life. If you want to keep it to yourself, that is fine too.

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Heather Cook

Heather Cook

Hi, I’m Heather. I’m an Autistic writer, advocate, and life coach, and I'm building a life I love. I help other Autistics to build their own autism-positive life. I love reading, jigsaw puzzles, just about every -ology, and Star Trek!

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