Four approaches to working with a disability in an ableist society

by Sarah Fader

A group of King Penguins look in one direction. They are all brown with black beaks, except for one penguin that stands out, different from the rest: it is blue with yellow details on its head and beak. It looks proud and stands slightly taller than the other penguins.
Caption:

You might feel depressed or defective because you can't do it the way society wants you to. But, here's a secret you may not know, you can do it your way.

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©JeremyRichards / Adobe Stock

Having a disability in an ableist society is not easy. The harsh truth is this: we live in an ableist society. If you haven’t heard of ableism, it’s crucial that you understand what this term means. Ableism is “discrimination and social prejudice against people with disabilities.” Our world doesn’t cater to people with disabilities, whether these are physical issues or invisible ones, such as mental illness.

As a person with disabilities, I can attest to the fact that society doesn’t care about the things that I need to create a life where I’m comfortable and able to function well. It’s commonplace for people to discriminate against those with disabilities; individuals often assume what we can or can’t do. For people like me, it makes it excruciating to exist in a society where my disability is viewed as a “problem.” Despite the societal deficits in accommodating those with disabilities, there’s hope, and we can figure out how to navigate a world that doesn’t understand what we experience on a daily basis.

1. Advocate for yourself

Nobody can tell you what you want and need. Whether you have a disability or not, you know your needs better than anyone else. Be brave and communicate what accommodations you need to help you get through work or school. If you need accommodation, ask for it. There are legal repercussions if someone is unwilling to give you what you need. They’re violating The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA.) You have grounds to speak up and say what’s happening here. You deserve to get what you need, and you’re not asking for anything out of the ordinary to help you and your health.

2. You can only do what you can do

It’s frustrating when you’re in a situation where you’re expected to be able to do something and you can’t. Many people with a disability have experienced where they feel like they “should” be able to complete a task, but for whatever reason, they’re not able to do it. As people with disabilities, we’ve felt extreme guilt for being unable to do what other people can. You might feel depressed or defective because you can’t do it the way society wants you to, and your feelings are valid. But, here’s a secret you may not know, you can do it your way. You don’t have to complete a job like someone who is neurotypical or doesn’t have a disability. There are times that you won’t be able to do a job, take an academic class, or engage in a social activity; don’t be ashamed to tell people what you can’t do and remember that there’s so, so much that you can do – don’t beat yourself up for what you can’t do.

3. Find and use your strengths

As someone with a disability, I wonder why things are difficult for me. Tasks are inherently more challenging for us. I consider what’s harder for us and what we can’t do. Let’s shift our focus from what we can’t do to what we can accomplish. You have talents that other people don’t possess. Maybe you’re like me and experience deep hyperfocus as a result of your ADHD that lets you get projects done at a rapid speed. Perhaps you’re incredibly empathetic, and you’re able to help people as a result of your disability. Find your strengths and use them. You’ll find that engaging in activities that emphasize what you’re good at doing makes you feel a sense of pride.

4. Make the world work for you

Once you find your strengths, you’ll feel good about yourself, and you can look for opportunities to use those talents. There are many possibilities for you to shine in this world, although it’s not designed for us. You’ll see that you’re capable, and you have unique qualities to offer others and the world. Our society is ableist, and that is a huge problem we need to continue to fight collectively. As we continue that battle, let’s show the world (and ourselves) what we have to offer, and there’s so much we’re ready to share.


Profile photo of Sarah Fader taken in her car. She has a tattoo on her left arm and she is wearing a blank tank top. Sarah has red hair and wears glasses
Article by Sarah Fader

Sarah is a native New Yorker who enjoys naps, talking to strangers, and caring for her two small humans and two average-sized cats. Like six million other Americans, Sarah lives with Bipolar type II, OCD ADHD, and PTSD

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