Shifting Internalized Ableism (Psst: In All of Us)

Last summer, I had the privilege to attend the second in a series of webinars of the Virtual Summer Camp from Crip Camp. If you haven’t seen the new film Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution on Netflix, I highly recommend it. Did you know that a large number of the central leaders who fought for the formation of the signature Americans With Disabilities Act legislation met each other at a summer camp? I did not know that. Their years in relationship and community empowered them in transformative ways as they built a disability culture of inclusion. Their work has created substantive changes in the lives of disabled people.

Here’s the Trailer for Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution:

The webinar I watched last summer was about shifting internalized ableism. I offer some of the insights in this post today, because ableism has been internalized inside all of us. Most significantly, it has devastating impacts upon disabled people. But whether you have a disability or not, you have likely internalized some of these messages. I hope it is freeing to you to question these internalized messages.

I’ll share some of those in a moment, but first, let’s talk about ableism. Internalized ableism exists because of a culture of externalized ableism. TL Lewis offers a powerful definition of ableism:


[Image of a black square with white writing in it that says: ABLEISM a·ble·ism \ ˈābə-ˌli-zəm \ noun A system that places value on people’s bodies and minds based on societally constructed ideas of normalcy, intelligence and excellence. These constructed ideas of normalcy, intelligence and excellence are deeply rooted in anti-Blackness, eugenics and capitalism. This form of systemic oppression leads to people and society determining who is valuable or worthy based on people’s appearance and/or their ability to satisfactorily produce, excel & “behave.” Importantly, you do not have to be disabled to experience ableism. a working definition by Talila “TL” Lewis]

We see here that in many ways, ableism and racism are linked, as are other forms of oppression.

Here are some messages of internalized ableism, offered by the leaders of that Crip Camp webinar. How might we feel if we shift these inside ourselves? How might we feel if we help dismantle the relational and systematic impacts of these messages?

Some messages of Internalized Ableism:

1) I feel like I need to work to be worthwhile.

2) I am a “burden” due to my needs.

3) I can “cure” my illness or disability by trying hard enough/eating a specific diet/working out.

4) I need to make other people feel comfortable with my disabilities by being extra nice/funny/accommodating.

5) I should not ask my household members to take precautions in pandemic, even though I am at risk and feel frightened.

6) Sometimes I feel like my life is less valued than able-bodied or able-minded people.

Questions for reflection

— Do any of these resonate? What else might you add?

— How can we love our body-minds precisely as they are? How can we shift messages of internalized ableism into messages of greater hope and empowerment?

— How do these messages impact our wider communities? How do they do harm to disabled people, Black people, Indigenous people, people of color, people who are LGBTQIA+, and others?

— How can intersectional movements uproot oppression in powerful ways?

Renee Roederer

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