Mental health

Ableism: The Assumptions People Make About Ability (and Disability)

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I’ve seen ableism being mentioned on Twitter a number of times lately, and aside from the obvious meaning, it wasn’t a concept I was all that familiar with in a mental health context.  This post will explore what ableism means for psychiatric disabilities.

An article on the Center for Disability Rights website describes ableism this way:

“Ableism is a set of beliefs or practices that devalue and discriminate against people with physical, intellectual, or psychiatric disabilities and often rests on the assumption that disabled people need to be ‘fixed’ in one form or the other. Ableism is intertwined in our culture, due to many limiting beliefs about what disability does or does not mean, how able-bodied people learn to treat people with disabilities and how we are often not included at the table for key decisions.”

That idea of wanting to fix people may be grounded in good intentions, but even the best intentions won’t negate the negative impact on the person living with the disability.

A report by the Law Commission of Ontario described ableism as:

“a belief system, analogous to racism, sexism, or ageism, that sees persons with disabilities as being less worthy of respect and consideration, less able to contribute and participate, and of less inherent value than others”

The report also points out that ableism can be conscious or unconscious, and may show up in different ways depending on the type of disability in question.  It gives the example of zoning bylaws that keep supported mental health housing our of certain neighbourhoods (something I discussed in a previous post on NIMBYism).

In the past, the idea that those with disabilities were not valuable was taken to extremes with the eugenics movement.  Large numbers of people with mental illness were sterilized, and the Nazis kicked it up at a few notches by murdering people who were mentally ill or disabled.

Stereotypes play an important role in ableism, and reinforce prejudiced attitudes and discriminatory behaviours.  One stereotype is the disabled person as helpless victim.  The disability is seen as dominating the person’s life and identity, and it’s assumed that they wish for their disability to be cured.  Difficulties around access are attributed to personal characteristics rather than legitimate accessibility limitations in the community.

When it comes to mental illness disabilities, there are plenty of stereotypes that can come into play.  In an article on Rabble.ca, the author identified several ableist things she hates hearing, including “you seem normal” and “everyone experiences that.”  The latter in particular resonated with me, as it’s such a common thing people say with apparently good intentions, yet it’s so utterly dismissive of the experience of disability.

So is ableism just another way of saying stigma?  They’re similar and would have significant overlap, but not exactly the same.  Stigma devalues people because they are different in a certain way, whereas ableism is about ability and lack thereof.  Ableism also covers a broader umbrella of people, while stigma tends to be more focused.

In terms of what I have faced, I would say that stigma seems like a better descriptor than ableism.  Assumptions have been made about me because I have that black mark of having a mental illness, and whether or not I am able to do things has played a much smaller role.  I think what matters far more than semantics is recognizing that people do discriminate, and that discrimination may be dressed up in good intentions.  And the fact that it’s widespread doesn’t make it okay.  It’s just a sign that we need to keep talking.

Is ableism something that you’ve experienced?

 

Sources:

 

For more talk on stigma, visit the Stop Stigma page.

 

book cover: Making Sense of Psychiatric Diagnosis by Ashley L. Peterson

 

My book Making Sense of Psychiatric Diagnosis breaks down the different categories of DSM-5 diagnoses, explaining the diagnostic criteria and providing first-hand stories of the various illnesses.  It’s available on the MH@H Store, as well as Amazon and other online retailers.

31 thoughts on “Ableism: The Assumptions People Make About Ability (and Disability)”

  1. I feel a little uncomfortable with the Law Commission of Ontario definition. I agree people with disabilities are worthy of respect and consideration and have inherent value equal to non-disabled people. And I agree disabled people should be encouraged to contribute and participate. But I feel that I want it to be known that I am often less able to contribute and participate in things. A lot of my self-criticism and fear of stigma is in fact based on this idea that I see myself and that others see me as someone who should contribute as if I was not depressed, socially anxious and autistic, where in reality those things impair my ability to contribute and participate in major ways. I would actually feel more comfortable if more people recognised my limitations.

    1. I definitely agree with you Luftmentsch. I don’t want to be treated like I’m stupid, but I also don’t want to have unrealistic expectations put upon me that will only lead to feelings of failure and eventual meltdown.

  2. Oh I guess so – thank you for explaining this concept to me. I’ve seen it around but didn’t understand what it really ment. I’ve heard somethings like
    – when I look at you, I wouldn’t say (I felt horrible that time)
    – do you really want to be depressed? (the want was the kicker)
    – why can’t you help yourself, you worked in the mental health field (well, there is no starting this discussion)
    – you’re too young to be sitting at home
    and maybe those are stupid examples but sometimes it’s difficult to un-hear them. Good intentions or not, it can hurt.

      1. I think it would be better when the good intentions would just be that, without the judgement or unsolicited advice!
        There is nothing wrong (in my mind) with saying: I can listen to you or I hope you’ll find coping mechanisms that work for you or I hope you’ll find you way in the difficulties that you’re experiencing or I hope that you have some support…. I could think of more things to say than what not to say (in my opinion that is)

  3. Yeah, my dad accosted me last summer, I think (?), when Sonya and Nate went rope climbing, and Nate sent Sonya into freefall. I was, of course, terrified that Nate had done it on purpose, which Sonya vehemently didn’t believe. (She’s so naive!) And I was telling my dad about it, and he was like, “You make everything about you! You just want to believe Nate’s a bad guy because it makes you feel better.” And I was like, “Where’s all the hate coming from?” Apparently, he’d been visiting my sister; and if he talked to her about me, I can’t even begin to imagine what her take would’ve been. It’s kind of hard to explain what this has to do with ableism, but it brought it to mind, because I felt like I was being made to feel ashamed of the way my mind works…? And all I did was beg Sonya not to put her life in Nate’s hands. I didn’t tell her to quit being friends with him; I just asked her to avoid situations wherein he could do that sort of thing to her. Her ankle took a long time to heal.

  4. Great post. I’ve thought about the term stigma but not much about ableism. But this section completely resonates: ““you seem normal” and “everyone experiences that.”  The latter in particular resonated with me, as it’s such a common thing people say with apparently good intentions, yet it’s so utterly dismissive of the experience of disability.”

    But I have sort of been chewing on the idea that some mental health disorders are more stigmatized/ableism-susceptible than others.

    Obviously I can only speak for myself, but social anxiety is my main struggle, and it’s such a commonly used term that I think there’s less stigma toward it, but also still a lot of ableism (I now realize) — because it seems like no big deal since everyone has anxiety.

    1. I agree, certain illnesses are referred to as so commonplace they’re almost meaningless, are that can do as much damage as the more stigmatized size of things.

  5. I find it irritating when people say “I can’t do *insert thing here* because of my bpd”. I’ve heard people say that people with bpd are incapable of loving and keeping a partner. It’s ridiculous, you can say that about anyone. It’s not just people with mental illness. I’ve been with my husband 10 years. Married for 8 and I’ve never cheated. Ugh….

  6. I appreciate this topic greatly and I understand that people with disabilities have inherent values and should be allowed to contribute to society. I have a question though: at what point can they be assisted or is it okay to attempt to offer assistance.

  7. I appreciate this post greatly! Its very important to look at ableism and discuss it. I deal with quite a lot of it, from the looks I get in public to general treatment from strangers (like I’m an infant). 🙂

    1. There definitely needs to be more awareness of how these kinds of assumptions can do so much harm. It’s really not that hard to respectfully ask someone rather than act based on assumptions.

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