Reflections

We Need to Talk About Ableism-Related Anxiety

I’m sitting on the edge of my bed in my bathing suit. I have decided to wear it all day in the hopes I would gather the nerve to go to the pool in it. I’m dealing with a particularly rough concoction of thoughts fueling my anxiety today. I want to swim. I have always loved swimming, the water, the feeling of my body moving in every way that it cannot on land but, getting to the pool is the issue.

I can walk there—that’s no problem. I fear who I might encounter once I get to the pool. Will they stare? Ask me invasive questions? Comment on my scars? Will they move my crutches from the side of the steps and then leave me stranded when I’m ready to leave? Will they spend the entire time cooing and telling me “what a special girl” I am? Will they film me and turn me into inspiration porn to “motivate” another disabled person whose ableism-induced anxieties they’re ignoring.

I would like to say that my years as an activist and advocate has given me the right methods for dealing with the anxiety of possible ableism, but it hasn’t. For days I won’t leave my home for fear that I will be ostracized and othered for my body. And, as someone who is a disabled black woman, I often cannot differentiate the many “isms” I am experiencing at the moment. I can only feel I am not welcome, the sense that my presence is a burden or see that someone has already written me off.

We think of bigotry as loud, in our faces and confronting, but often it is the quietness of it all that frightens me most. It makes me questions the thoughts and views of people who may not think about me in those marginalizing ways at all. It forces me to keep people at arm’s length fearing the moment when they might show me what they really think of me or use me to show what a good person they are—for the moment when their actions are too saccharine towards me to be real.

What’s worse is that far too often what we think people are thinking about us becomes the way we begin to think about ourselves. What if I really am a burden? What if I make people’s lives harder when I’m around and request help or accommodations?

It becomes harder and harder to dismiss these thoughts because too often, society confirms to us that this is really how we are thought of by governments, entertainment and the people we encounter on the street—or at pools.

The thoughts that haunt us are not unfounded, but I’m also tired of them ruling my life.

For me, exercise brings me the most anxiety because it is inevitable that a complete stranger will comment on my body, how it moves, how it doesn’t, how brave I am to display it in public. My family would tell me that I needed to exercise regardless of how many people are staring or what they have to say, but when ableism is your every day, willingly subjecting yourself to an environment where that is probable is easier said.

I don’t have a solution, but I went to the pool in the bathing suit I had been wearing all day. I made sure to look around to brace myself for the people I may be encountering. No one was there.

I had spent the day terrified of what turned out to be an empty room. But, even as I type this, the thought occurs to me that just because the ableism-related anxiety I experienced that day was for nothing, does not make the ableism I experienced and fear experiencing constantly is any less real.

6 comments

  1. i guess i didnt think about it but this is exactly how i feel every time i have to leave the house. i am terrified of this kind of stuff happening because it has happened so frequently. I’m so sorry you have to deal with this feeling too. I try to bring it up to my therapist but i dont know if she really understands when you have something visibly different about you, it really opens up for a lot of public abuse and shaming….its hard to overcome anxiety for something that really happens quite often in your life…

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  2. I am sorry you have to deal with our failure to make the world accessible and safe. Thank you for sharing your experiences. I wish you much love.

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  3. I needed this article. I have in the past used people with disabilities to be inspiration. It stops as of now. Thank you for making me aware of this. I’m better for it.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you for writing this. As a blind person, I struggle with many of the same anxieties. It helps to know other people with disabilities understand. I commend you for going to the pool. I’m glad you had a good experience.

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