Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Why I am an able-bodied person with disabilities

In the past couple of years, I've become more acutely aware of the discrimination I receive because of my anxiety, OCD, and ADD. The non-neurotypical parts of my brain impact my work, my health, and the way I interact and the way I'm perceived. Knowledge of the ableism I receive has helped me to better deal with the challenges I face because of my disabilities, and has improved my perception of myself. Instead of trashing myself for being lazy or crazy, I've learned to love and live with the parts of myself that aren't up to kyriarchal codes.

However, I am not quite comfortable with the unqualified identity of “person with disabilities.” Because I benefit from ableism, every day.

While my mind may not be up to code, my body and its ability level are. Though my fatness puts me outside the ideal, my body faces no barriers and brings me no unwanted attention based on my ability level. There are no spaces that I cannot access because of my form of movement. I do not receive stares or unwanted questions because of my disabilities. I do not have to worry about the content of my food and what ingredients might attack me. These are only a few of the experiences I can have without fear of retribution because of my able-bodied privilege.

No, the form of my disabilities, their presence in my mind and not my body, has been a major privilege for me, and so I'll use it as a qualifier. This is also described as "passing privilege", and that is certainly part of it - I am passing as a person with full able privilege. But it's also a reflection of a specific privilege and ability level that my body has, that my mind does not.

This is not universal: many people who experience mental illness that is not visible or physical face extra stigma; many have to undergo additional scrutiny to prove their disability, and others are seen as “fakers”. I am certainly vulnerable to this, but I have not had many of these experiences so far. Able-bodied as a general term to describe all people with disabilities can silence people who have non-physical disabilities. Savannah Logsdon-Breakstone, the director of advocacy at Autism Woman's Network, wrote, “Us[ing] "PWD" and "non-ablebodied" interchangeably.[erases] of broad swaths of the population with disabilities, from those who have mental health disabilities, to those with developmental disabilities...Additionally, for a number of PWD we live in communities that only think non-ablebodied people are "really" disabled.”

I am not saying that my disabilities have no relationship to my body; they are intimately connected, and in some cases, my disabilities do have a big impact on my ability level. Care of my body through exercise and the eating of awesome food is a major part of my mental self-care. I cannot take birth control because of my disabilities, which has an impact on my physical expression of sexuality. Taking time to combat intrusive thoughts can monopolize my spoons. My trichotillomania causes splotchy skin and ingrown hairs. Disabilities impact my body. But though I must constantly work with and on my mind's quirks, my body is by comparison a intermittent and faint challenge.

It took a long time for me to recognize that I have disabilities, that I am hurt by ableism. The sometimes weary functionings of my mind give me my share of trouble; I face obstacles that are presented not by my disabilities but by the insistence that bodies and minds must live up to a certain standard. This is why I will continue to describe myself as a person with disabilities.

But, it is dishonest to omit mention of one of the major ways my body is normalized by society – alongside my whiteness, cisness, and relative size privilege, to list a few. I need to take responsibility for this facet of my privilege. My disabilities and the advantages given me by ableism are not mutually exclusive; they are both part of my experience of ableism in a kyriarchy.


  1. Excellent post. I identify.

    As a survivor of anorexia, I find my passing privilege most painful and ironic, given the massive misunderstanding of the illness. A few years ago, I finally started responding to people's comments about my body shape/type by saying, "I tried to kill myself by denying myself food for years." Co-morbidity of anorexia and depression is extremely high, if not 100%.

    Maybe that line sounds melodramatic, but that's exactly what was going on in my mind. The thoughts and urges still surface--I've learned better coping skills, though I'll still slip back from time to time.

  2. Interesting post. I am diagnosed ADHD and very likely have an undiagnosed anxiety disorder(s) as well as likely one of those dyslexia-related issues that isn't that exactly that went undiagnosed because i read early and well and have fantastic reading comprhenesion even though I cannot spell to save my life and still cannot remember i before e or whatever it is.

    But I have had real mixed feelings about the way i've seen mental health issues conflated with disability issues in feminist blogging/communities, or rather, I guess, what i percieve as "lesser" more common mental health issues like anxiety depression adhd and so forth. i see a lot of otherwise privileged feminists get really upset about someone reblogging an awesome post about some "crazy" republican scheme who object to that use of crazy as demonizing and ablist and while logically i get the rationale, i just can't get behind it. maybe i'm too boot-strappy wrt to acknowledging my own internalized ableism, but i still think the disability is a spectrum and my experiences, as much as they negatively impact my life, are just grist for the mill compared to people with i guess what i see as higher in the heirarchy of being disabled. it seems co-opty and ugly for me to shout "ablism!" when someone gets annoyed that due the my adhd i am interrupting them, or whatever. and i often resent this when i see it done by others, whether that's valid or not.

  3. I can identify with this a bit. It's frustrating to feel like I'm "normal", but my conditions make it harder for me to actually do what makes me look "normal".
    I'm trying to use my music and my own story as a way to raise funds for mental health research. Here is a link that may be of interest:
    - josh


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