Internalized Ableism and the Dichotomy of Valuable Disability

Below is my Disability Memoir midterm. It discusses author Esme Wang’s excellent essay titled Yale Will Not Save You. Enjoy!

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When I first applied to colleges, I presented a complicated application. My academic and personal record was spattered with obvious signs of mental illness; two repeated years to over half a dozen dropped AP classes, non-traditional activities to my “additional essay” section that detailed my “extenuating circumstances.” I eventually set off for Temple University, where I’d gotten an automatic full scholarship due to my SAT score. Once I nestled into Temple’s Philadelphia campus, I continued to struggle. Unlike in high school, my activities were meaningful and intensive, though I missed many classes and suffered a handful of falls into the deep hole that was my long series of disabilities. I applied to transfer to NYU in the middle of my sophomore year; my transfer essay focused entirely on a disability narrative of mine. I was accepted and enrolled right away. 

The very same tension that Esme Wang- a woman with schizoaffective disorder and author of “The Collected Schizophrenias”- describes in Yale Will Not Save You, was present in my college matriculation journey. At the end of the journey, once I had finally reached the highly regarded NYU, I, like Wang, thought it meant “I [am disabled], but I am not worthless” (Wang). Universities and other academic institutions demand a contradictory standard: be exceptional in ability, never in disability. These institutions do not consider the inherent social and academic value in being disabled, rather they clamor for the sameness of future prodigal politicians and scientists and authors and humanitarians. Inherent to their treatment of disabled students is the message that disability is a hindrance, in the sort of way that a gnat annoys you at a luscious picnic. Easily swatted: I hate to kill things but gnats don’t even contribute to the circle of life! (I imagine some swatting dean bemoaning this). And yet, in the midst of continued discrimination, colleges and universities will promote their commitment to diversity and accommodations at every turn! The tension between being disabled in a survivor sort of way and being disabled in a victim sort of way in the eyes of institutions is apparent in Wang’s work, and this tension creates internalized ableism that eats away at the core identity of disabled people.

The University system and Yale in particular, as Wang presents it, is conditioned to create solutions and virtuosos. “An impeccable self without disorder” (Wang) is what she wanted to create for her school, and because she couldn’t be impeccable, she was cast aside with her health and life labeled a “breach of etiquette.” Yale gave her a day or two to vacate the premises, as if she were an intruder on the campus of a school that had once welcomed her with one of those mailed acceptance packages that most high schoolers can only dream of. Her crime, her reason for trespass, was simply having hurt herself, having been mentally ill. Wang later discusses the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which “prohibits discrimination against students whose psychiatric disabilities ‘substantially limit a major life activity’” (Baker) and mandates “accommodations” that might have included extra time on assignments and extra absences, a temporary medical leave, and much more. It’s a mirage, or it has been historically; elite schools, in order to preserve their reputation, kick out students who exhibit signs of serious mental illness, including Wang, Michelle Hammer, “Dan” from Katie J.M. Baker’s story, and many more. Such discipline, rather than accommodation, does more than violate the ADA; it actively endangers and encourages internalized ableism inside the disabled folks that it discriminates against.

Wang describes a telling interaction with “The Shakespeare Lady,” or Margaret Holloway, a woman who was often sighted on the Yale campus as she peddled for money in exchange for Shakespeare recitation. Wang recognizes the subliminal bond between herself and Holloway, and offers her food without a request for anything in return, though Wang does note an internal monologue that highlights what the pressure of Yale and other academic institutions can do to the disabled mind. It prompts her to wonder “is there anyone here who’s worse off than I am?” (Wang) and “I’m not going to be crazy forever, am I?” (Wang). Says Professor Fiona Kumari Campbell of the University of Dundee, these questions indicate “an internalisation or self-loathing which devalue[s] disablement,” (Campbell) in the mind of Wang. In this section, she is engaging in “defensive othering,” which is “the desire to emulate the Other (the norm),” (Campbell). Doing this is a protective act for which I do not blame Wang; I do it, myself. The issue with internalized ableism is that it creates a dialectic between valuable and inconvenient disability, between survivors and those who stay victims. In this process, “shamefulness is magnified… where the rhetoric of being a survivor, a non-victim, is powerful and being a victim is to be ‘passive or deficient.’” Yes, institutions push that victimhood is deficiency, a weakness, and to be a survivor is to be strong, a story of recovery. Holloway is that weakness to Wang, and Wang, to herself, is teetering on the line between survivor and victim. 

Internalized ableism goes beyond vilification to create a passive and incomplete view of the self; “the existence of disability is tolerated rather than celebrated as a part of human diversification,” says Campbell. This simple tolerance is seen in Wang’s assessment of others making their disabilities “a component of their personalities” (Wang). Wang wonders if there is ever “an impeccable self to reach.” Her question posits that the self is separate from her disability. Such a separation creates a hope that Wang can eventually be free of her disability, which implies that it’s better to be free of it. I’m in no place to comment on Wang’s desire to “get better” (Wang), but I do know that her desire to do so is at least partially born of the internalized ableism that has been instilled in her by her parents, by her University and the construction of elite academic institutions, and by herself. Having an incomplete view of oneself is antithetical to self-liberation in the face of a disabled body-mind. To accept who you are is to be free, and Yale kept Wang trapped within herself.

Esme Wang did not get better for a long time. She went in and out of treatment at Yale, and though Yale absolutely should not have essentially forcibly removed her, the school was not the clear solution to her desire to live a more healthy and balanced life. She was perpetually plagued by the tension between getting better and staying sick, between being a survivor and being a victim, and Yale’s stigmatization and expulsion of her exacerbated this greatly. This very tension that was imposed upon her created “a wide gap between those who are loathed and that which is desired,” (Campbell). Wang turned herself into the “loathed” due to outside pressures including her school and chasing the “desired” state of being well. Ultimately, Wang does not become the epitome of wellness by the end of the essay, but she is able to reflect upon her experience at Yale by summing it up as an institution which “erred” (Wang). With distance, she knows that she was not the only one at fault. Indeed, internalized ableism is “imposed by the dominant group,” (Campbell) and Yale dominated this period of Wang’s life.

Internalized ableism is insidious and imposed upon societal pressures, and few pressures loom larger than elite institutions to bright and promising young people. I myself have been drawn into the illusion of a dichotomy between valuable and inconvenient disability, and my pursuit towards an elite institution exemplifies that. Wang took on this dichotomy (to no fault of her own), and it ultimately hurt her, through suicidal ideation, self harm, and suicidal incident(s). The idea that there are valuable and non-valuable disabled people (sick folks versus survivors), and that the latter should be expelled from school when they struggle, creates internalized ableism inside of disabled people that is harmful for their mental health and for the disabled community.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Baker, Katie J.M. “How Colleges Flunk Mental Health.” Newsweek, 15 Feb. 2016, www.newsweek.com/2014/02/14/how-colleges-flunk-mental-health-245492.html.

Campbell F.K. (2009) Internalised Ableism: The Tyranny Within. In: Contours of Ableism. Palgrave Macmillan, London. https://doi.org/10.1057/9780230245181_2

Wang, Esme. “Yale Will Not Save You.” The Sewanee Review, thesewaneereview.com/articles/yale-will-not-save-you.

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