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How ‘Medical Ableism’ Is Borne From Our Society’s Inequalities

In a sight only too familiar to people with disabilities and other chronic conditions, medical professionals often dismiss their patients’ symptoms if they don’t have all the answers. As a disabled person, I have been repeatedly gaslighted by my clinicians.

“It must just be your anxiety.” “You couldn’t really take this long to heal.” “Your post-traumatic stress disorder is the etiology of your stomach pain.” I have lost count of the sheer number of times I have been patronized by my providers, who will glibly dismiss my physical ailments because I have psychiatric disorders.

The year was 2004, and I was in a psychiatric ward as a teenager. It was my first and only stay in a mental hospital, and my fellow patients and I were in psychotropic cocktail hazes. “You guys don’t even know what pills you are supposed to be taking!” The lady who would dole out our daily medication regimen bellowed.

In a medical display of what might be termed “tough love,” she proceeded to question everything from our job prospects to our success in later life. Even though those days have long passed, I will never forget my first encounter with medical ableism.

For as weighty a problem as it is, the aforementioned treatment does not occur in a vacuum; medical ableism is a problem borne out of the gross inequities in our society. After all, the American system values doctors’ expertise over patients’ knowledge of our own bodies. Every time I sign the consent-to-bill form at the psychiatrist, I am reminded of the harrowing reality that my provider will make more money in a day than I will receive in a month on Social Security Disability Insurance.

When a system so perversely privileges doctors’ labor over the bodies of the disabled patients they treat, it is no wonder the latter are met with dismissiveness and derision. Measured in dollars and cents, we are literally less than our providers.

Besides tackling doctor-disability income inequality, ending this ableism necessitates opening channels of communication between medical personnel and disability rights activists. There should be no reason why physicians, nurses, techs and anyone else who comes into contact with disabled and chronically ill patients shouldn’t be required to take mandatory sensitivity training. Before they treat us, medical professionals must demonstrate cultural competence and knowledge of the struggles we are likely to face in any given societal or clinical context.

While I do respect professionals’ training, it is also important that they acknowledge, understand and validate my experience, as well as the knowledge of my body and mind that comes with having physical and mental health disabilities. Only then can we work as a team to treat and conquer the medical conditions that wreak havoc on people’s lives.

Photo by Eduardo Dutra on Unsplash