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Chapter 6

Chapter 6. Contending with Ableism from Internalized Ableism to Collective Action

Although narratives and perspectives of disabled people are integrated throughout this volume, Chapter 6 is devoted to research documenting insider reactions to ableist treatments ranging from the subtle gestures of disgust, objectifying stares, and invasive questions to the more insidious forms of exploitation, harassment, and harm. Co-authored with Dr. Arielle Silverman, this chapter provides several personal accounts to give readers a firm sense of the many ways ableism is manifested at the interpersonal, intergroup, and institutional levels. Chapter 6 first describes research on how disabled people have coped with stigma and social disadvantage, and then addresses the consequences of these coping strategies for health, self-advocacy, and collective actions for social change.

People with disabilities have choices when it comes to how they respond to ableist treatment – usually with the goal of protecting a positive sense of self or identity. While individual reactions to ableism are as diverse as the people reacting, research reveals some common response patterns. When people feel stressed or threatened by the possibility of being the target of stereotypes and prejudice, their well-being and achievement can be undermined (Chapter 6). One way to cope is through individualistic strategies that attempt to escape ableism by distancing from disability or hiding it from others. This can help people feel a sense of control and avoid discrimination. Yet, deliberately concealing a major aspect of the self-concept or refusing accommodations and other assistive devices can also contribute to self-blame, the internalization of hate, and a sense of hopelessness (Chapter 6). Denial of disability and strategic concealment can also backfire when one’s impairment is not easily escapable. Furthermore, these individual coping strategies do nothing to confront social inequality and injustice. An alternative approach to coping with prejudice involves group-level strategies that focus on improving the status of disabled people as a group. Under certain conditions, pervasive experiences with prejudices trigger stronger identification with the disability community, feelings of pride and a sense of empowerment to advocate for disability rights. There are also risks to those who challenge the status quo as dominant groups in society are reluctant to share power, and push back against those who demand equality – dismissing them as rude, angry, and ungrateful, especially those who reject unwanted “help.” Disabled people have also been punished (e.g. denied benefits; abused verbally and physically) for challenging the status quo while being rewarded with social services for “staying in their place” (Kteily et al. 2011).

Chapter 6 introduces Social Identity Theory (SIT) as generative framework (Tajfel and Turner 1979) for testing both individual and group-level responses to ableism, and the central role of group identity in explaining intergroup behaviors. According to this perspective, both perceivers and targets are recognized as members of social groups that exist in power and status relationships to one another, shaping the dynamics by which people come to understand their disadvantaged (and advantaged) statuses. Recent research documents that people with disabilities deploy both individualistic and collective strategies in response to ableist treatment. For example, those who self-identify as members of the disability community are much more likely to recognize discrimination, to affiliate with other disabled people, and to become involved in disability advocacy (Nario-Redmond et al. 2013; Nario-Redmond and Oleson 2016). Chapter 6 also reviews the conditions that facilitate both individual and collective responses to prejudice, including when members of disadvantaged groups are more and less likely to question the legitimacy of their social position and become politically active.

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