Confronting my own internalised ableism

Lots of people, including me, write of how active we were before our illness, of how many miles we ran or how much sport we played. It underlines that we are not the usual sort of person who gets ill, which of course is a disgusting fallacy (there is no ‘sort’ of person who becomes ill). It distances us from illness, which is regarded as pathetic, weak and inferior.

I wonder if we subconsciously use our former vigour to contrast and separate ourselves from the people who were lazy and who made unhealthy lifestyle choices before they got ill. But this divides ill people into two categories of ‘the deserving ill’ and ‘the undeserving ill’, which is plainly wrong and problematic.

We feel like we have to prove that we were doing all the “right” things and living healthily before we became ill so that nobody thinks that the illness is our fault or blames us for getting ill. This defensiveness is understandable amidst the cruel circumstances of illness in which we find ourselves and considering the vile attitudes of others towards us that we come up against while ill, but we must learn to recognise our own internalised ableism in it too.

It should go without saying that it’s awful for anyone to become ill, regardless of how active or inactive they were before their illness. It is not anyone’s fault. Only the disease is to blame. You can be living a healthy and active life, yet still become ill. Lots of healthy people don’t want to believe this because it is scary. They don’t like to think that it can happen to them, even if they are making all the right, healthy choices. But that’s the truth of it. There are lots of people who are lazy and eat unhealthily but yet are completely healthy and never become seriously ill. That’s the unfairness of life for you.

With regard to non-serious illnesses like colds or flu, you hear people say with pride “I’ve never taken a day off work/school because of illness” or “I never get ill”. I’m ashamed to say that I used to be one of those people before I became seriously ill over 12 years ago. It is a subtle form of ableism because instead of viewing health/ill-health as chance (or “luck”), it implies a superiority on behalf of the person speaking and suggests that they think succumbing to illness to be a weakness of character. The person saying these things thinks that they are better and tougher than Those People who do get ill or who do take days off work when they get a cold/flu. I used to be proud of being tough and was impressed with other people who acted similarly. We live and learn. It is actually very selfish to “push through” a cold/flu by going to work/school because you just spread it to your colleagues/peers, causing them to suffer.

I’ve been mulling over all of this and other issues surrounding ableism for many years now and it’s more important than ever that we challenge ourselves to combat the ableism in our own thinking, in all its ugliness, which we have gradually absorbed and internalised throughout our lives.

It is important because how we view illness determines how we value those who are ill and whether we care about what happens to them. This government’s policy and spending cuts have disproportionately affected the ill and disabled. They have taken away many ill people’s means of survival.

The government’s rhetoric about ‘scroungers’ and ‘low value people’ have hardened the general public’s attitude towards the ill and disabled. It breaks my heart to know that anyone could even think that one person’s life is worth less than another’s, let alone our own government actively encouraging this abhorrent lie. People now think that, no matter how debilitated, everyone should be able to be self-sufficient and look after themselves, without help or welfare spending. They do not realise the privilege that being able-bodied affords them. They do not consider how they would like to be treated if they were to become so ill or disabled that they were unable to work or look after themselves. It could easily happen to anyone, even you.

This is why I think that it’s so important to recognise and understand ableism. Understanding these issues begets empathy and compassion; not understanding begets fear, resentment and hatred.

I really hope that people think about how their vote in the general election will affect the most vulnerable, including the disabled and ill, so many of whom have been made destitute and sometimes homeless (and sometimes dead) by this government. I hope that people still care.