You may have heard the term “ableism,” but you may not know exactly what it is, so what is ableism? This word has a simple meaning but complex implications for a person with a disability. Personally, I hate the term, but unfortunately, it’s necessary, and I have to respect its uses. Here’s what ableism is and how ableism feels to the disabled (one of which is me).
What Is Ableism?
But on top of that slap in the face, there is ableism.
Ableism is defined as:
discrimination or prejudice against individuals with disabilities.
And like with any type of discrimination, ableism lives in thoughts and actions. Ableism actions are pretty clear and often illegal when it comes to physical disabilities. For example, refusing to put in a ramp to make a building accessible to people with physical disabilities is an example of ableism (and is illegal). Ableist thoughts typically revolve around assuming that a person with a disability should be able to do whatever a person without a disability can do. An example of that would be assuming that a person with a learning disability (like dyslexia) could pick up information in the same way as those without a disability. In this case, ableism throws the binder at the person with the disability and says, “Do your job.” A person who respects the disabled knows that information sometimes needs to be represented differently for different people to learn effectively.
Ableism and Mental Illness Disability
And while likely, everyone with a disability encounters ableism from time to time, it tends to be rampant in the world of mental illness disability.
First of all, this is because many people don’t recognize even severe mental illnesses as disabilities. Most people think of mental illness as an illness that can be cured, or a character flaw that is the person’s fault, or something the individual could handle if they really wanted to. Of course, none of those things are true. And let’s be clear here, for many people, mental illness is a disability just like any other.
Just like with many disabilities, everything from major things like working for a living to tiny things like showering are dramatically impacted by my illness. Every day is impacted by my bipolar disorder disability. I am in no way exaggerating when I say that.
(For more on mental illness as a “real” disability, see here.)
What It Feels Like to See Mental Illness Disability-Related Ableism
As I said before, everyone with a disability sees ableism at some point, but when your disability is invisible, ableism crops up even more, often because people don’t know you are disabled. People don’t tend to take mental illness disabilities into account when they think and act — they tend to not even be considered.
For example, have you even read articles like, “The Secret to a Happy Workplace” or “Top 5 Ways to Increase Your Joy?” Those articles almost never mention mental illness. I would argue that in order to have a happy workplace you need to take into account disabilities like mental illnesses and I would also argue that mental health (at the very least) should be taken into consideration when one talks about joy. But this doesn’t tend to be the case. The publishers of those articles omit people like me — disabled people — from the conversation. This is ableism.
Ableism and Mental Illness in Everyday Life
Of course, ableism is sneaky and shows up in everyday life — even with people who are aware of my mental illness disability — all the time. For example, the idea that people shouldn’t have to take drugs is an ableist stance. You’re lucky if you don’t have to take drugs for your brain and your stance stating that simply shows how ignorant and prejudice you are when it comes to mental illness. The idea that people shouldn’t be admitted to hospitals without consent is ableist. It shows that you don’t understand what it is to have a break with reality and it shows that you’re privileged enough not to have to worry about it. And on and on. Things like health and welfare policies also tend to be rife with ableism.
The Low-Down on Ableism and Mental Illness Disabilities
Think of it this way: if you never have to think about your mental health because you’re wandering through life as a normal person, you are privileged and lucky not to have a disability. Much like I’m privileged and lucky not to have to take physical access into account due to a mobility limitation, you’re privileged and lucky if you don’t have to take your reactions and symptoms into account due to a neurological limitation.
I’m not the person that runs around and accuses people of ableism all the time, but it is, without a doubt, an issue, and the word itself does have a place in conversations around wellness. We deserve to have our neurological disabilities taken into account, just like any other disability. We deserve not to be subjected to ableism by people who are merely lucky enough to have healthy brains. We deserve to have our rights and needs acknowledged alongside everyone else’s. We are worthy and we are important and we deserve to be treated with the respect that ableism tends to rob us of.
Image by Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0 Alpha Stock Images.