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25 Examples of Ableism to Avoid as an Ally to People With Disabilities

Theresa Swan
Young disabled woman in a wheelchair with friends in a park.

Ableism means “discrimination in favor of able-bodied people.”

As of today, I am officially “totally disabled.” My health has been declining before getting diagnosed with a chronic illness in May 2019 and having to stop work.

It has been devastating to grieve my old life, career and hobbies. And ableist remarks (still fairly common!) are like kicking someone when they are down. Since at least one out of five people will become disabled in their lives — and ableism is still largely unaddressed and unknown — if you are the loved one of someone with a disability, you will want to be aware of how to proceed with compassion. Here is a list of 25 examples of ableism so you can be a good friend / medical practitioner / family member and avoid the harm ableism causes.

1) Minimizing another’s struggle for your comfort. We know it is hard when someone has a disability / chronic illness. But imagine how much harder it is for them. Give them space to talk about it.

Related:How Students With Health Conditions Can Successfully Navigate the College Transition

2) Discriminating against them for speaking about their diagnosis/challenges, or accusing them of just wanting attention or trying to manipulate others. These ideas are completely ridiculous and rooted in acute ableism. This is likely the hardest thing a person has ever gone through. Sharing is a part of well-being; a little bit of compassion goes a long way.

3) Thinking you understand how a condition affects someone without listening to them and researching their condition. Each person has different experiences and each diagnosis has complex symptoms.

4) Comparing chronic/long-term disabilities to temporary/short-term injuries or illnesses. Getting your tonsils out is not the same at the existential identity crisis or the physical and emotional challenges of facing a potentially lifelong disability.

5) Saying they should just “get over it” or “accept it” without recognizing the immense grief that can come with chronic illness / disability. Again, it is likely the hardest thing a person has gone through and there are a lot of big feelings that need to be expressed. Let the person know you are there for them. “Tough love” attitudes towards someone with a disability are not love at all.

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6) Assuming a person is faking an invisible disability. Just. Don’t. No one would choose this. If anything, we are actually faking being well!

7) Avoiding interacting with someone because their disability/illness makes you uncomfortable. Try “I know this must be so hard for you” and ask how they would best like to be supported. Offering specific things such as “I can bring soup” or “I am stopping at the pharmacy, do you need anything?” can help you feel supportive in a concrete way.

8) Presuming disabled people can’t speak for themselves. Always speak directly to the person rather than their caregiver.

9) Thinking they should be able to do everything for themselves rather than offering or validating community care. This individualistic culture harms us all — imagine how much it harms those who aren’t able to fully function physically/mentally. We could often use a hand with many things. Don’t shame someone for not being able to do it all.

Related:6 Chronic Illness Truths a Best Friend Needs to Know

10) Thinking those with disabilities are a leech on the system. Everyone deserves to live. Enough said.

11) Inferring someone is lazy, unmotivated or not trying hard enough to get better. Saying they just need to “buck up” or try ____ treatment, eat ____ food or do more yoga. The sheer amount of practitioners many of us see, treatments we try, research we do and money we spend on trying to get better would make your head spin. We are some of the strongest people there are.

12) Often physical disabilities cause mental health issues like anxiety and depression, not the other way around. It is hard to wake up every day knowing we are not able to live the life we would choose, or even take care of basic household tasks. While there has been immense historical stigma, depression is not the root of chronic illness.

13) Not allowing space for the people with disabilities in your life to discuss their disability issues, while expecting them to listen to your problems. Relationships don’t work that way — they are about give and take. Healthy relationships are reciprocal — if not, they are exploitative and draining.

14) Ignoring the disability/pretending it doesn’t exist. This is an attempt to erase a person’s marginalization and challenges. It is also emotionally neglectful. This doesn’t mean discussing it every time you see someone but ask them how they are with things regularly.

15) Concluding the person with a disability is doing something wrong if other people have recovered and they haven’t. Recovery isn’t an option for many people. They may already feel embarrassed, ashamed or scared about this. This is otherwise known as victim-blaming.

16) Placing less value on people with disabilities than people who can work or do certain activities. We are valuable as is. Capitalist production does not translate into loveability. We have many types of creative gifts and often more compassion than the average Joelene.

17) Blaming a person or their lifestyle for “creating” their disability. This is more victim blaming. It doesn’t matter if you are a “spiritual master.” Don’t. It is not our fault.

18) Thinking the disability is “not that bad” or is non-existent because you can’t see it with your eyes. Invisible disabilities are extremely common. The fact that you cannot see them does not make them less debilitating.

19) Telling someone to “change their mindset” or to “not identify with their disability.” Doing so does not magically make our disability disappear and leaves us feeling shamed and unseen. For many of us, disability is part of our identity — it affects everything about our day. Yes, hope is helpful, but it does not negate the grief they might feel or the validity of their experience / condition.

20) Thinking a person with a disability is overreacting or being high maintenance for stating their needs. It is often really hard to ask for help or state our needs. If you shame someone for doing so, they may never open up to you again. Put yourself in their shoes.

21) Assuming that because someone is smiling / laughing / out that they must be better, or things are easy, or they are faking their disability. Smiling and laughing feel good. It does not mean we aren’t struggling. Most of us attempt to fake being well or try to ignore our symptoms. And many of us have some days that are much better than others.

22) Expecting that if a person with a disability is up for something one day, they should be up for it another day. See above.

23) Consistently making group plans that the disabled person is unable to participate in. You like hiking? We understand and may have loved it ourselves. But we need social contact too. Check in and see what types of activities work for a get together once in a while.

24) No longer inviting someone out because their disability has caused them to cancel a lot of plans previously. Trust me, we hate this way more than you do. Keep inviting us. Maybe visit us at home.

25) Believing ableism is less toxic and harmful than racism, sexism, classism etc. It’s not.

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