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Why Dealing With Ableism Can Be the Hardest Part of Having a Disability

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It may be easy to assume that people with health conditions only have to worry about their symptoms and treatments, but living with a medical condition is far more complicated.  On top of prioritizing their health, people who live with disabilities or illnesses often have to cope with ableism — systemic oppression of people with disabilities — which can be even more challenging to navigate than symptoms themselves.

Ableism often makes the world less accessible to people with health conditions — which can make everyday self-care challenging. If someone with a physical disability has to trudge up multiple flights of stairs to see a specialist or their apartment doesn’t have appliances and countertops at a sitting level, then tasks that able-bodied people would complete without a second thought will take much longer. Oftentimes, the solutions to these accessibility problems require time and money that people with illnesses or disabilities may not have, so they’re forced to find time-consuming temporary workarounds in order to navigate the world.

But ableism isn’t just structural — and its emotional effects can be especially detrimental to people with health conditions.  People with health conditions may face bullying and overt discrimination at higher rates than their able-bodied peers.  They may also have to listen to people describe their conditions in unflattering ways, decide whether or not to speak up when people use disability slurs in everyday conversations and cope with societal perceptions that their bodies or minds are “incapable” or “broken.” These harmful mindsets often extend to higher education, the workplace and even medical spaces that should feel safe and unbiased towards people with disabilities and illnesses.  The sheer prevalence of ableism is dangerous — people with health conditions may be at high risk for mental illnesses, addiction and suicide in part because ableism is such a constant in their lives.

Coping with the emotional effects of ableism can be so difficult that it can have lasting consequences.  Conditions that “flare-up” can be triggered by so much more than just the physical environment, and constantly struggling to fit into a world that isn’t built for people with health conditions can leave them feeling fatigued, achy, “foggy” or struggling to function.  The frustrations that accompany ableism can also lead to hopelessness, helplessness, body image issues, eating disorders and self-harm — mindsets and habits that can take years to unlearn.

If you’re living with a health condition and feel like the societal perceptions of disability and illness are so much more invasive than your symptoms themselves, you aren’t alone in your struggles. Symptoms may come and go, but experiencing ableism day in and day out can feel defeating and physically draining. If you struggle with the effects of ableism in your daily life, know that society is moving towards inclusion and acceptance for people with disabilities, but give yourself permission to feel frustrated with the ableism you encounter too. Ableism is a major issue, and your feelings surrounding it are valid — no matter what anyone else thinks.

Getty image by Luis B.

Originally published: September 12, 2021
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