Internalised Ableism

Words by Susie (she/her), 24 QLD 

In part 1, we explored ableism: what it is, how to recognise it and how you can be an ally. Internalised ableism is much more personal and in some ways even more heartbreaking, as constant reinforcement from our ableist culture begins to dictate our internal, personal lives.

Ableism is hard enough but many of us have experienced widespread mistreatment to the point we now experience internalised ableism.

What is Internalised Ableism?

“Internalised ableism is when a disabled person discriminates against themself and other disabled people by holding the view that:

  • disability is something to be ashamed of,
  • or something to hide,
  • or by refusing accessibility or support.”

My Story of ‘Unconscious Ableism’

One major issue I am recognising in myself and am trying to work through is unconscious internalised ableism. Society is not set up in an equitable, welcoming way.

I feel this has led me to judge and hold myself to impossible standards.  

I felt very judged by the outside world when I had to drop out of university due to my invisible illnesses/disabilities. It was especially hard as people could not actively see what was ‘wrong’ with me. This made me feel I had to justify myself or prove my disability. This is something I struggle with when using my disability parking sticker and I receive glances from people because my disability is not readily available for them to see.

There are societal stereotypes as to what disability looks like, when in fact disability looks like everything. (As I shared in a recent Instagram post there are many faces of chronic illness). I dismissed and denied myself equity rights for years.

I refused to seek help because people would say ‘you don’t look sick’- so I would doubt myself and my disability by asking questions like: do I really need the support? Is the support justified? Am I sick enough to ask for help?


Today, I still really struggle with claiming my rights for extra help and support, likely because the ablest world I grew up in fed me the belief that extra help = weakness. I worry I need this support because I am ‘weak’ and ‘can’t keep up’, but it is societies’ ableist culture that is weak, flawed and not equitably set up.

Receiving support is not a sign of weakness or personal failure. People living with disabilities are by far the strongest, most resilient people I know – living and working in a system not designed for us.

The Question: What do you do?

It’s a quick, natural question which ‘helps’ us understand what a person does and what they might be like, but it’s an incredibly ableist question which fuels assumptions. Society places value and engrains our identities in ‘what we do’ – as if what we do is who we are. This further perpetuates internalised ableism by equating human worth with productivity.

I have been asked this question all my life and began to ask others this too. Although I asked this question because it was ‘the norm’ – I didn’t truly believe it was a productive question. I feel people should not be judged by stereotypes and assumptions that may come along with certain job titles or academic work.

I am trying to ask some new questions instead: what do you do for fun?, what brings you joy? Or tell me about yourself? I feel these questions give us far more insight into people’s souls, lives and passions and help build better connections — and what could be better than that?


  • Become aware of ableism both in society and yourself – it is only with awareness that we can question and change ourselves and our reactions.
  • I want to encourage other people living with disabilities to not feel ashamed when asking for help and support they deserve – this is something I personally grapple with to this day.
  • Receiving support is not a sign of weakness or personal failure, it is the system that has weaknesses due to its inequitable set up. We are not weak, in fact, people living with disabilities are by far the strongest people I know – living and working in a system not designed for us.
  • You are not defined by what you do. Your worth is not related to your productivity or output.

I hope by speaking on these topics we can spread awareness and give power back to those struggling with asking for help.


Illustration by AileenYou can find more of her work on Instagram @aileenetc