Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Ableism 101: General Individual Ableism and Microaggressions

A comment on a recent post made me realise that the concept of ableism is still not widely known to the public and the struggles mostly invisible.  So for the next month, every Tuesday I will be doing a series of posts on Ableism and different types of aspects.  Today's post is about general individual ableism, particularly microaggressions.

In a nutshell, ableism is the stereotypes, prejudices and heuristic assumptions of disability and disabled people which can cause physical and/or emotional harm.  The Oxford dictionary defines ableism as discrimination in favour of able-bodied people.  The reality of ableism is vast and experienced by most disabled people on a regular if not daily basis, and the effects vary.  Many examples are subtle and pervasive.  You wouldn't even notice it and often incidences just get brushed off as minor annoyances but like catcalling and other subtle incidences of sexism and racism, the microaggressions build up to to something major.  I couldn't possibly cover all of them, but here are a few general everyday ableist things experienced by many PWDs, particularly those with visible disabilities, and my personal experiences.

Staring and Objectification

This is something pretty much everyone with a visible disability can relate to - even those with invisible disabilities but who rely on an aid of some sort.  I've had people staring at me wherever I go out in public for as long as I can remember.  My siblings call them starebears.  For the most part, they're just kids who don't know better (though I do believe parents should teach from a young age that staring is pretty uncool), often times adults are just as bad.  While they really bothered me when I was younger, I don't tend to notice them as much these days.  If I do notice now, I don't generally care as much unless I'm having a particularly bad day.  I do know that for the most part, the people I am with notice them and get bothered by it.  My siblings get bothered by starebears and can be quite protective, doing their best to put them off their staring, usually entertaining me in the process.

What you lookin' at?   Source
I say they don't bother me much now, but that's not to say it's like water off a duck's back.  The long term effects are pretty clear when I stop and take stock of how it's shaped my choices and behaviour.  For most of my life I've actively avoided drawing attention to myself (I can't even begin to fathom why anyone would want to be famous with all that extra attention).  I avoid public pools, instead opting for private spas.  If I must go to a public pool, I'll wear swimwear that covers as much of my body as I can.  Thank God for pretty rash tops!  A myriad of my body image issues could be at least partially attributed to the unwelcome, negative attention I've been subjected to from a young age.

The general behaviour of staring is objectifying and on the bad days when I really notice it, it makes me feel like a freak show exhibit and I start wishing I could charge people on a per second basis so I'd at least get something out of it instead of feeling alienated and crap about myself.  It can get even worse though.  About four years ago, my brother and I were standing in one of the queues for a celebrity autograph at Oz Comic-con and there was a young girl of about 8 or 9 with who I can only assume was her father in a queue next to ours no more than a metre away from us.  She stared at me intently for quite some time.  Being tired and having had enough of crowds at this point, I didn't appreciate being made to feel uncomfortable so I stared intensely back which usually works to shame people into stopping.  This time however, she raised her phone and I heard the tell-tale click of the camera shutter.  I was horrified and had visions of my image going viral on the internet for everyone to mock and laugh at.  But I did nothing because I got the impression that her father wouldn't believe me.  Fortunately nothing happened, but I am definitely now hyper aware when someone has the camera lens of their camera pointed my way.


This is a form of ableism I think a lot of people with physical disabilities can relate to.  Many people seem to make the strange and misguided assumption that a person with a physical disability must be intellectually disabled too.  It's very weird, but it happens to me a LOT, especially if I'm using my wheelchair as I need someone to push it because I don't have enough upper body strength to self-propel and I'm still waiting on funding for an electric wheelchair.  I get people talking to me people talking to me like I'm a child.  I also get people immediately talking to whoever is pushing my wheelchair asking questions about me as if I can't hear or answer them myself.  It's so common that I really notice when someone addresses me right away (annoyingly I often get so surprised that I don't even know what to say so it sounds like the presumption was correct!).  This isn't exactly a harmful behaviour but it's very isolating and ableist as hell and certainly doesn't endear me to people at times (note: if you want to make a really terrible first impression on me, have this be your first interaction with me!)

Erasure and Trivilisation

This one is pretty straight forward.  It's when people say 'oh but you don't look disabled' or accuse us of faking or playing up our disabilities.  I know this one is a big issue for those with invisible disabilities.  It's also one that comes out with comments about how we just need to think more positively, etc.


I got a lot of this in school.  Kids notice differences and target the odd one out.  For some reason this is the law of the playground and for a long time no one seemed to really care enough to do much about it as long as no one was getting physically injured.  Even now bullying in schools is a big issue that isn't isolated to kids with disabilities, but those with very obvious physical disabilities and/or intellectual disabilities can often find themselves targets of bullying.  My disabilities combined with being a very quiet, shy and sensitive kids made me a prime target.  Often it was just light-hearted off the cuff jokes at my expense which I laughed along with because I wanted to be accepted, but which slowly wore away at my self-esteem.  Occasionally it was more malicious than that, spreading rumours on the playground about me, using me as a scapegoat for others' wrongdoings, and various other cruel things kids can do at times.  


Exclusion could be considered a form of bullying in some contexts, but from personal experience, it's a like a league of its own it's so common (for me anyway).  My experiences with exclusion have included friends not inviting me to group events because they assume without consulting me that I can't cope with it, friends consistently making group plans with me to places and activities they should by that point know me well enough to know I can't manage and ignoring my concerns when I put them forward, instead suggesting that I just don't come or (and this is definitely one of the worst comments I've received) that I clearly don't care enough about my friends to just get over it and push through it (!!!).  I've lost a number of friends this way as I've grown older and become far less tolerant of this behaviour.  I don't care so much about being accepted by people who demonstrate in this way that they're not worth my time - I'm aware of how callous and cynical that sounds, but life is too short and my energy too limited to waste.

This doesn't cover all the different forms of individual ableism but these are a few that I've experienced on a semi-regular basis.  Just to be clear, this isn't the be all and end all of my existence!  There's plenty of good with the bad, ableism is definitely one of the shit aspects of living with a disability, but on most days it's just background static that I just wish would go away and be less annoying.


  1. Wow, NO comments on this post? Only goes to strengthen my opinion that ableism is one of the least cared-about "isms" out there to everyone but the disabled. Suck.

    Great post. I'm impressed by your forbearance in describing people talking to your wheelchair pusher instead of you as not exactly harmful, as I think it's appalling. My best friend has a visual disability, and the first time this happened when I was with her I was so shocked I didn't know what to say. Now I say "Why don't you ask her? She's standing right here." (Of course, me doing that is an expression of able privilege. Although she's fine with me doing it, my friend wouldn't do it herself as she, perfectly reasonably, doesn't want to engage in unpleasant interactions all day long, not least because it can result in aggressions that aren't so micro.)

    1. Haha I'd like to think that it's proof, but I think the lack of comments is more to do with the fact that this is still a very small, burgeoning (I hope) blog. But I do agree with you too.

      I think I view it lightly because in the grand scheme of the ableism I face daily, it is. By no means am I saying it's ok and that it doesn't bother me or bring me down or make me want to yell at people sometimes, but in terms of scale, it's on the minor end of horrible-ableist-things-people-do-and-say if that makes sense. Good on you for speaking up for your friend though and bearing in mind whether she's ok with you doing that or not :)

  2. I have found this very helpful for my workshops on Ableism. Well laid out and thought out. Thanks for writing this.

  3. I’ve just stumbled across this blog while googling how to prove that I am being discriminated against in a job interview with a particular employer. This is soo true and thank you for writing it