How Ableism Shows Up in Spirituality

I posted about ableism on Instagram last week and it really resonated with a lot of folks, and also triggered some debate and discussion with a few, so I thought it would be good to tackle this in a more in-depth piece where I could dig into the nuances.

What is ableism?

Ableism is discrimination and social prejudice against people with disabilities and/or people who are perceived to be disabled. Ableism characterizes people who are defined by their disabilities as inferior to the non-disabled and of less value to society. In many instances, ableist attitudes place the responsibility for disabilities on the disabled themselves, when in reality their disabilities are the result of many factors, most of which are completely out of their control.

Ableism encompasses physical disabilities both visible and non-visible, and includes disease that hampers an individual’s ability to function, mental health, and body image. Fat phobia and the devaluing of obese individuals is also a form of ableism.

Ableist attitudes believe that physical perfection, both aesthetically and from a health standpoint, is a sign of social superiority and a reward for good behavior. To a large degree, ableism is very closely tied to individualism, capitalism, and hustle culture, which perceives a person’s worth as being synonymous with their productivity.

Learn more about Individualism.

Ableism can manifest in spirituality through the belief that certain practices which may not be accessible to various groups of people are required to be spiritual. For example, that one must engage in yoga, meditation, etc. to be spiritual when one may have a physical or mental hurdle that prevents them from doing such. It can also look like problematic beliefs which shame the disabled for their own circumstances. Physical health and vitality are very frequently equated with spiritual superiority and they are also often used, consciously or not, as a means of validation by many in the spiritual community. In many cases, especially in wellness and fitness, physical perfection is the end goal (and it was the same end goal of eugenics, which is why the Nazis also incorporated health, wellness, and spirituality into their vision for a new society…).

Ableist beliefs in spirituality look like:

Many of these suggest that people with physical illnesses and disabilities are somehow at fault for their own disability, because they are mentally and emotionally weak, or have otherwise engaged in “bad” behaviors and are simply experiencing the consequences of their own actions.

An example of this is the assumption that people are obese simply because they make bad food choices and don’t exercise. This belief has been perpetuated by the diet and wellness industry which stands to profit from people believing that they have more control over their physical health than they actually do, selling miracle cures, and positioning health and wellness as a status symbol.

The reality is that obesity, like many other physical and mental health-related issues, is actually a result of a complex combination of physical, psychological, and social factors, most of which are completely out of the individual’s control. This includes physical things like inherited genetic predispositions, societal problems like access and affordability, and the really big one which is also compounded by both genetics and societal problems is trauma.

Learn more about how trauma affects your physical health.

The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study found that trauma was a large contributing psychological factor in obesity and pretty much every other health problem experienced in society. With obesity, specifically, they found that many people who experienced childhood sexual abuse or sexual assault at some point in their life often gained weight as a means of protection (whether they consciously recognized this or not). Traumatic stress due to physiological changes in the brain caused by early childhood trauma is also a major factor in development of unhealthy coping mechanisms that lead to weight gain.

Thus, these people didn’t simply engage in bad habits and gain weight. They were victimized by abusers against their will and their brains did what evolution taught it to do in order to survive that trauma and prevent it from happening again. No amount of shitting on people for consuming food with high-fructose corn syrup in it is going to fix that. It will, however, contribute to the development of eating disorders and wellness elitism, and that’s ableism in a nutshell.

Shaming trauma victims and those with other health issues with problematic spiritual beliefs only serves to compound their trauma and further position them as inferior beings for no other reason than to create a class of spiritual elitists.

Why is an anti-vaccine, anti-mask, or anti-medication stance ableist?

The pandemic has truly unveiled how prevalent ableism is in our society. Many many people, including lots of health and wellness social media influencers, have disparaged people dying of COVID as being the result of their own poor health choices:

  • “It’s only killing old people.”
  • “It’s only killing people who already have health problems.”

Not only is that an ableist attitude, it also demonstrates a complete lack of empathy (which often goes hand-in-hand with ableism). It’s the most stark example of social darwinism, suggesting that only the fittest deserve to survive.

Many wellness bloggers and their followers have gone so far as to suggest that if people simply ate better (i.e. were not overweight), we wouldn’t need a vaccine and declared that the government should be mandating healthy eating instead of vaccinations.

Yet again, this completely disregard’s the role of trauma and systemic oppression in health issues, and specifically the effects of those things on COVID death rates, because most if not all comorbidities are directly caused by or exacerbated by trauma, and a person can’t make healthy choices when their brain has developed in such a way that it keeps them living with their nervous system in constant survival mode, decreasing their ability to use the part of the brain that makes logical decisions.

People who have racial, financial, and other social privilege are less likely to experience trauma in the same way or to the degree that people who do not have those things do, and thus, are more likely to hold ableist views.

“Most disabled people at some time or another worry that we aren’t wanted, or that we might be viewed as expendable in a pinch. There’s also a dark history of disabled people being actively erased, through mass institutionalization, forced sterilization, and outright killing. And this is comparatively recent history, part of in the modern era, and not comfortably dismissed as ancient history.

 

“Yet, it’s all too easy in a supposedly enlightened age to think that actual hatred of disabled people is a thing of the past. It’s especially possible to think this if you are a disabled person fortunate enough, like me, to have a supportive, financially secure family and communities that accept and respect you. I’ve always known intellectually that disabled people’s status and very personhood in society is fragile. But Covid-19 confronted me like no other event in my lifetime with how close we are to being written off, not just accidentally, but intentionally, almost as a matter of principle.

 

“From the very start of the pandemic, elderly, disabled, and chronically ill people heard the unusually clear message that we are less worthy of saving, that our lives are worth less.

 

“Members of Congress openly argued that high-risk Americans should be willing to die in order to keep the economy humming. The general public was told not to worry about Covid-19 because it would mainly harm people with “pre-existing conditions.” In fact, Covid skepticism itself is strongly influenced by the idea that the virus is really only a problem for others, namely elderly, chronically ill, and disabled people – as if that makes it less of a problem.

 

“It’s not just rhetoric and broader priorities either. Explicit triage policies were ready to be implemented in the Spring that would deny Covid-19 treatment to some elderly, disabled, and chronically ill people. And while some progress was made in fighting back and asserting our right to complete care, as cases climb once again these discriminatory and deadly decisions are already being made.

 

“Alternatively, some recognize that we are the most at risk and in need of protection, but expect us to shoulder the burden ourselves by locking ourselves away entirely in our homes, while younger, supposedly healthier people mostly “get on with their lives” while Covid-19 runs unchecked. Some combination of general public health measures and targeted protection for those at highest risks seems like the most sensible way to go. But there seems to be little chance that such nuanced policies will be put into place, at least during this pandemic.

 

“Either way, Covid-19 has been a sobering lesson for me. No matter how successful, financially secure, and respected as I may feel, my identity as a disabled person means that I am, in some sense, a less valued member of society.”

 

– “What I’ve Learned as a Disabled Person from the Covid-19 Pandemic” by Andrew Pulrang

Looking beyond Covid to mental health and other physical illnesses, the view that medication is bad largely ignores the very real need that some people with disabilities and other conditions have, and the benefits that it provides them. Certainly medications have been overprescribed, but as I’ve said in a previous post, your problem is not with science or with medicine. Your problem is with capitalism and exploitative business practices. No amount of shitting on all use of medication or harping on holistic health does anything to solve that problem, but it does shame people who actually see benefits from taking their medication and need it to function.

Stigmas, Labels, and Ableist Biases and Prejudices

A question that was asked after some discussion around labels and ableism was, “Should we get rid of diagnosis labels like PTSD because of their negative stigma?”

The answer is no, we should not get rid of those labels, because the only reason anyone views them negatively is because of the stigma. You want to remove the stigma (the negative belief/attitude/association) from the label.

The thing many (well, able-bodied) people don’t realize about labeling disease or disorders is that for a great many people who are suffering, having a diagnosis (a label) is actually relieving them of a great emotional burden—of not knowing what’s wrong with them, of feeling like it’s their own fault, etc. They finally have a reason and can let go of holding onto a responsibility that was never theirs to carry.

For them, a diagnosis doesn’t necessarily have a negative connotation—only to people who view a disability as “negative” does the label have a negative association. So therein lies the hidden bias/prejudice that is ableism, as well as how our biases color our beliefs and perceptions. Certainly having a disability can create anxiety and hardship, but that’s largely because society doesn’t accommodate the disability, not necessarily because of the disability itself.

Learn more about bias.

A disabled person who views their own circumstances as a detriment to society or themselves has likely internalized ableism, similarly to how racism and misogyny can be internalized. They have adopted societal programming/conditioning around their own plight, which has created internal shame about it, and society’s refusal to accommodate something that was out of their control also contributes to this internalization that something is wrong with them. This is the same reason that rape victims and other trauma victims carry shame for what happened to them. This is the stigma.

A similar example would be with autism and people viewing it negatively as something that needs to be cured, whereas many autistic people themselves believe there is nothing wrong with them, they are simply wired differently by way of some evolutionary advantage. That, too, is a product of a society that holds an ableist bias–that someone must function and behave exactly as everyone else in order to be considered healthy or normal.

Here’s the thing about labels…

Unless it’s a specifically intentionally derogatory one, labels themselves don’t necessarily create or reinforce a negative association unless the person perceiving the label has already learned to view it negatively. That means they are the ones who are biased and doing the stigmatizing, and they are the only reason the label is viewed as detrimental in the first place.

For a lot of people with trauma, being able to have an explanation means no longer carrying the burden of feeling deficient and shaming themselves what has happened to them. But to someone who believes that victimhood is bad, acknowledging that someone has been victimized is viewed as a negative thing—and that, again, is a bias and a stigma resulting from an underlying belief that being a victim is shameful. Thus the person ends up denying the experience of the victim, whether it’s themselves or someone else, which further wounds the victim. It’s unfair and damaging, and it’s one of the reasons why the idea that we are 100% responsible for our reality is so hurtful as well: it’s very victim-shamey and enables abuse.

Learn why spirituality needs to be trauma-informed.

Not all labels are created equal, of course.

Labels become dangerous when they are used to create or reinforce a hierarchy of personal value, like when a label is created with the specific intent of being derogatory, such as a racial slur. But most labels are merely meant to categorize and individuate, and it’s the stigma associated with those labels, typically through biased attitudes about them.

The only thing that creates a a hierarchy with these labels is the value we assign to them. When we use labels as a means of narcissistic supply or name ourselves authorities without earning those positions, it harms people by creating a hierarchy. When we attach stigmas to certain labels, it harms the individuals who have that label and also serves to create hierarchy in the opposite fashion–by demeaning someone else. In either case, it’s not the label’s fault, it’s the attitude that society as toward the label and the person it’s attached to.

 I saw someone not long ago trying to argue that we should discontinue the use of the label “Reiki Master” because the word “master” is associated with slavery, and being a reiki master assumes power over another person. Will removing the word “master” remove the power differential that a reiki master has over a client? Will it prevent any reiki master from abusing that power? Nope.

In this way, it’s better and more productive for us in the long run to spend our time eliminating the root of the problem–bigotry, bias, and the societal programming that perpetuates them–rather than treating a symptom by removing the use of labels altogether, which in the case of ableism, inadvertently harms the people who have actually been victimized.

 You can certainly tell a whole lot about people by how they use labels, though. Do they use them as symbols of status or to gain power? 

You’ll see a lot of spiritual shirking labels for all the wrong reasons.

They dislike any label which is meant to simply individuate people–proper pronouns for trans or nonbinary people, for example–but they are all up in the spiritual labels that are used as a means of reinforcing a hierarchy of power and spiritual narcissism, like starseed, lightworker, walk-in, priestess, etc.

These kinds of people use “unity” when it suits their needs and discard it when it doesn’t. They have no full, working understanding of nonduality. Only a surface level grasp of it viewed through an unexamined ego.

You can’t bypass the work required to create unity in society and simply skip to “being one.” That’s not how this works. First you have to dismantle those beliefs and attitudes within yourself–and that’s what spirituality is all about. Skipping straight to unity is spiritual bypassing.

Learn more about spiritual bypassing.

Prounouns, along with mental and physical health diagnoses, are not labels which denote a hierarchy or specialness, simply differentiation. There’s no boost in power differential that comes with being nonbinary, trans, or having PTSD, etc. The identification of pronouns, specifically, serves to rectify a power imbalance, not create one.

The labeling of post-traumatic stress, trauma, victims, etc. serves to name an area of society where we have a problem. You cannot educate people about an issue or advocate for groups of people if you cannot name them.

Again, the issue here is not the label. The issue is our collective beliefs and attitudes toward the people behind the label–including ourselves if and when we are using labels as narcissistic status symbols to feel special and more enlightened than others.

Spirituality gives us the tools for self-examination. It gives us the tools for deconstructing our own belief systems, examining our biases, unlearning our societal conditioning and programming, and it gives us the tools to heal our trauma. We need only use them the way they were intended, rather than as status symbols.

You don’t need to feel shame about having internalized ableist beliefs. They are very very prevalent in our society. Bring as much compassion to yourself as you navigate deprogramming yourself from these internalized beliefs and biases as you do to others.

Xo,

Ash

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