Ableism Bingo: Things to Never Say to a Disabled Person

July 30, 2020

 

Note: In addition to being a source of education, this post announces Yopp’s brand new merch store on Zazzle! To start buying, check out our new merch page or skip straight to buying products that support Yopp on our Zazzle store.

CN: Extensive and detailed discussion of social ableism and victim-blaming & gaslighting regarding health and ability; use of ableist language & slurs for educational purposes, and mention of suicide.

If you ask someone dealing with any kind of disability or illness, mental or physical, about what questions or comments they get over and over from healthy people that they cannot stand, chances are, they will have a lot of examples to tell you about! Some common structures of these comments are: 

 

Have you tried…
Are you sure you can’t…
Everybody deals with...
Why don’t you just…

 

But why does this happen? What societal patterns and beliefs are behind these questions and comments? Why is it that the receivers of these comments get so frustrated by them? 


Facing Resistance When You are Not the Default


Consider that in 2017, almost 1 in five adults in the US lived with some kind of mental illness (which has no doubt only increased since the pandemic), almost half (45%) of Americans suffer from chronic illnesses, and 1 in four adults in the US live with a disability. Despite that, our culture continues to insist that healthy, abled, and neurotypical are the states that we should expect people to be in. 

 

Because having one or more of these conditions puts us outside “the default” in society, we regularly encounter scrutiny, disbelief, and rejection around our physical and/or mental health. No matter how hard we work to fulfill social expectations with the bodies and minds that we currently have, we can expect the responses to our “variant” status from friends and strangers alike to be insensitive on average and outright hostile at worst. Pair that pattern with our society’s collection of victim-blaming ideas about health and it’s easy to see why managing, deflecting, or avoiding these unpleasant responses is a defining part of having an illness, disability, or source of neurodivergence. 

 

This experience is so universal that when I asked people from the disability and chronic illness community on twitter to tell me the worst, weirdest, and most annoying comments that they’ve received from people about their condition, I received almost 200 responses, many of which included three or more examples of frustrating comments that they had received. 

 

Looking through the comments, what is incredibly striking is that the exact same phrases and questions are being used over and over to undermine sick and disabled people, regardless of what their actual condition is. Looking at them collectively, these comments fall into a few main categories that speak to larger problems with our society’s attitudes regarding illness and disability. 

 

Note: I’m going to be using words like “sick” “disabled” or “in pain” as a shorthand for the wide array of difficult symptoms associated with chronic illness, disability, mental illness, and neurodivergence. If these words don’t describe you and your condition, feel free to substitute whatever symptoms or problems that are most impactful to you. My word choice isn’t meant to gate-keep but to simplify an extremely wide range of conditions that are impacted by these problems. You get to decide whether these ideas resonate with you and your specific condition. 


Framing Health as a Choice


Our culture has a bad habit of seeing the state of health as an accomplishment that you have full control over, which also means that if you are not healthy, you only have yourself to blame. Many cultures, ours included, even have a long history of seeing ill-health as a punishment for sinful or unethical behavior, which means that not only is it your fault if you’re sick/disabled but you are that way because you’re a bad person. 

 

You can see these ideas present in comments like...

 

You’re not even trying
You just need to try harder
Just stop having [symptom]
Just ignore it
You need to be more positive

 

These incredibly harmful concepts have integrated into our ideas about health so thoroughly that they also pop up in lots of less obvious ways.


Unsolicited Medical Advice


The most obvious manifestation of this often well-intentioned but still victim-blaming mindset is that conversations about any health issue will quickly and inevitably become focused on fixing you. Our culture has taught us that every medical condition has a cure and that doctors are eager to work tirelessly to find the root cause of your symptoms (just watch any medical drama on TV) so it makes sense that people want to help that process along, not understanding how that narrative is the exception, not the rule for chronic conditions. Unsolicited medical advice was probably the largest category of comments that I received in my twitter thread: 

 

Have you tried cutting out gluten?
Have you tried Yoga? 
Have you tried turmeric?
You just need to exercise more
You just need to lose some weight
(and my personal favorite) You should see a doctor about that 

 

The list goes on: Diet recommendations, take this supplement, stop taking so many supplements, see this specialist, etc. We’ll even sometimes get, “You just need to accept Jesus into your heart,” as a form of medical advice regardless of whether the person is already a practicing Christian or is happily established in a different religion or lack thereof. 

 

 

While it’s possible for these comments to come from a genuine place of wanting to be helpful, they all rely on one faulty assumption: It is possible to make your sickness go away if you just find the right treatment. But the unspoken corollary is: If you are still sick, you must not be doing enough to try to get better. 

 

While the most commonly suggested treatments do help plenty of people, they are also frequently the first things suggested by medical health professionals. When someone has been sick or in pain for more than a few months, they have likely already been trying the most standard, common solutions, especially because no one wants to stay sick or in pain. As we are in fact the ones most directly impacted by our own illness, we have a constant incentive to search for sources of relief to our suffering. 

 

But there are a lot of reasons someone might not use a given treatment. Perhaps we did try it and it didn’t work, or perhaps it did work but not enough to eliminate the problem. Or perhaps there is another barrier that this person is facing that’s not immediately apparent to you like cost, conflicting health conditions, or just not having enough resources to spare on experimenting with a treatment when introducing a new variable could make you better or it could make you worse. Not every treatment will work for every person. 

 

Unsolicited medical advice also puts the chronically ill person in an awkward position because even though that advice may not be useful to their situation, there’s a social pressure to be grateful for the offer of assistance and it’s considered rude to shoot down someone who’s “just trying to help”.  


Criticism Masked as Advice


The above examples of unsolicited advice, while frustrating, frequently do come from a desire to be helpful. But this advice can also be a vehicle for criticism and scrutiny. “You wouldn’t be sick if you would just [insert solution here]” is the more malicious, manipulative version of unsolicited advice. This tactic is pretty much always a mechanism for the person to push their own agenda on to you as if any example of your suffering must be rooted in a lack of whatever they see as valuable and important. These people will directly blame you for something that hurts you even though it’s completely outside your control.  


Recovery is the Only Option


Unfortunately, because we’re taught that all health conditions end in a cure or death, most of the language we have to offer comfort to a sick person is oriented around “getting better.” This can manifest in the seemingly innocuous comments like “Get well soon!” or “Are you feeling better?” but quickly turns into scrutiny in more accusatory comments like, “You’re still sick?” or “When are you going to get better?” These comments frame healing as not just the goal but the default, which implies that if you haven’t achieved it yet, you are a failure. They leave no room for the reality that for so many chronic conditions “getting better” isn’t possible and therefore isn’t the goal. 


Invoking the Naturalistic Fallacy


I once had a customer at the health food store I used to work at tell me, “You can heal from anything.” At the time, my genetically inherited connective tissue disorder was causing me a lot of pain and I didn’t particularly appreciate being told I could heal my body’s genetic structure. 

 

His opinion was not unique, especially working at a store that put a lot of emphasis on selling “natural” products of all kinds. The same there-must-be-a-cure-focus from the previous section has two specific variations that intersect with the naturalistic fallacy (the assumption that if something is natural, it must be good): 1. Healthy and able is our “natural” state of being and our body wants to return to this default state if we would only get out of its way and 2. Returning to “natural” treatments is the best and most efficient way to return to health. 

 

 

These mistaken beliefs come up most often when discussing forms of medical treatment prescribed by doctors. We’re told that big pharma is pushing unnecessary prescription drugs on us so that they can make as much money as possible (never mind that the supplement industry takes in about 35 billions dollars a year in the US alone), so it must be the medication that’s making us sick. There’s a meme that claims just walking through a forest is equally as effective, if not more so, compared to medication at treating depression. Nevermind that “just walking through a forest” and other “natural” treatments may not be evidence-based, aren’t going to be thoroughly effective for every person just as not every medication is effective for every person, and not everyone has access to forests or to walking.

 

These beliefs are so insidious that they even extend to recommending against the usage of wheelchairs and other mobility devices. Even doctors will sometimes tell their exercise-intolerant patients that they shouldn’t use their wheelchair too much or they’ll get dependent on it, even if there isn’t a likely path to recovery that results in less exercise-intolerance, and the wheelchair gives them a significant level of freedom and healing from past injury.  


Casting Doubt on Our Credibility


One of the more mind-boggling manifestations of ableism is the need to downplay the severity or outright deny the existence of just about any health condition. 

 

“You’re too young to be sick/disabled/know what real pain is”
“You don’t look sick/like you’re in pain.”
“This condition is all in your head.”
“It’s probably just depression/anxiety/menopause/obesity.” 

 

Something all these comments have in common is that someone has both chosen to ignore relevant information that you’ve given them about how your body/mind works and they’ve decided that their evaluation of your health is much more likely to be accurate than yours is (or your doctor’s is, assuming these comments aren’t coming from your doctor, which is a whole separate problem). 

 

These comments reveal several ideas our culture has about illness and disability: 

 

  • That disability/chronic illness presents only in a very specific, easily recognizable way

  • That it’s virtuous to downplay or hide the severity of your symptoms

  • That people regularly pretend to be sick or disabled for attention or out of laziness

 

None of these ideas are true, yet because healthy and abled people hold the majority of power in our culture, correcting these beliefs isn’t as simple as telling them “actually, that’s not how disability/illness works.” As a result, chronically ill folks will often go years of their life believing that they aren’t sick, that they’re making up their symptoms, and that they should hide their suffering as much as possible.  


Accusations of Faking


Taking this pattern one step further is the horrifying pattern of outright accusing people with just about any health condition of faking their illness/disability. Society has taught us that it’s much more likely someone is trying to steal resources that they don’t need than that they are just trying to access basic resources for basic functionality and survival. 

 

“You don’t really need [accommodation/treatment].”
“[Condition] isn’t a real thing.”
“You probably stole that [mobility aid or tool] from a real disabled person!”

 

Complete strangers will directly accuse us of not needing an accessible parking pass or a wheelchair or a cane etc. These ableist beliefs are some of the most dangerous because these comments can be accompanied by actions like:

 

  • Taking mobility aids away from disabled people to try to prove they are faking 

  • Outright ignoring food allergies when someone orders from a restaurant even though doing so could cause their customer to be hospitalized

  • Refusing entry to service dogs or requiring to see "their paperwork" (which is illegal)

  • Denying necessary medical care

  • Dismissing reasonable requests for accommodations at work or school

 

The assumption that people are trying to use accommodations/ treatments/ or tools that they don’t “really need” rather than just trying to live their lives, is possibly the most insidious and widely applicable ableist belief in our culture. 

 

 

Undermining our Autonomy and Personhood


Denying people’s rights to safety and basic functionality in such a widespread way requires the presence of an underlying belief that disabled/sick people are not deserving of basic humane treatment because we are not human. This denial of our personhood and right to autonomy is revealed specifically in a few ways.


Policing our Language


The language we use to identify ourselves is deeply personal, especially when your identity is wrapped up with stigma. The term “disabled” itself has a background of stigma and while the disability community has largely (though not universally) reclaimed the word as an accurate representation of what we are and not an inherently negative description, the abled community hasn’t exactly gotten the memo. 

 

They say, “You shouldn’t call yourself disabled!” or “Is that really how you see yourself?” or “You’re so much more than that!” and far too often, abled folks insist that we describe ourselves with terms like “special needs,” “alter abled” or “differently-abled” which by and large, disabled people prefer not to use. 

 

A similar issue is contained within the controversy between Person First Language (PFL) and Identity First Language IIFL) which is explained with great nuance in this video by disability activist Jessica Kellgren-Fozard. While it is perfectly fine for individual disabled people to choose what language they want to use to describe themselves, literature created and taught by abled people has insisted for years that “person with a disability” is a superior term to “disabled person.” This lesson is so heavily emphasized that abled people will correct disabled people when they call themselves disabled. 


The Infantilization of Inspoporn


Disabled people dread hearing variants of “You’re so brave” or “You’re so inspirational” specifically in response to disabled people doing ordinary everyday tasks like going to the grocery school or having formal employment. The word “inspirational” to disabled people is a lot like the word “sexy” is to women. It’s not that it’s inherently bad to call me sexy, I just need to know that you understand that sexy is one of the myriad of things that I am and isn’t the central quality for determining my worth as a person. Disabled people are often characterized as only being valued as a source of inspiration for abled or healthy people, and are not consistently recognized for the actual skill they’ve exhibited. There’s also something very icky about a privileged person praising a marginalized person for “being brave” in continuing to survive the fight against oppression the privileged group forced them to suffer in the first place. 

 

 

Blatantly Ableist comments


The last category of comments is simple, blatant ableism, where disability or illness is characterized as an inherently negative thing. 

 

“Well, at least you’re not in a wheelchair!” Many people who deal with debilitating pain reported receiving a variation of this comment from friends and even therapists when trying to reconcile their new identity as a disabled person. This comment relies on the idea that wheelchair users are always miserable and the false assumption that needing a wheelchair makes you “more” disabled than those who don’t. The “comfort” in this comment depends on the existing stigma against a different disability so if you have been already struggling with accepting yourself as a disabled person, further stigmatizing other disabilities is really not likely to help with that. 

 

Possibly the most horrifying comment from the list, which I’m sorry to say was a repeat offender, is some version of, “I would never go out in public if I had [condition]” or “I would kill myself if I had [condition].” These comments seem to be the most prevalent with visibly disabled people, but other conditions see versions as well. They imply that this person could not fathom that life would be worth living if they were disabled. It is an alarming testimony to the way disability is portrayed in media and the way it is perceived by the general public. Despite a thorough understanding of this topic, it still boggles me that anyone would think it’s okay to tell your friend that you’d kill yourself if you were in their shoes. 


Ableist Language

 

Though in many circles, it’s still considered socially acceptable, it’s incredibly grating to hear words that describe your health condition being used to insult people. “Crazy,” “Psycho,” “off their rocker” or just straight-up “Mentally ill” are regularly used to describe people who are being malicious, inconsiderate, or bigoted even though they are not exhibiting any actual symptoms of mental health problems. Bigotry is not a mental illness nor is it a cognitive disability. Words like “stupid” “retard” “idiot” and “moron” are used similarly, in particular, to describe people we vehemently disagree with or when we don’t understand their motivations. 

 

There is a similar issue with diluting the definition of certain conditions to mean something much broader. People will call the weather “bipolar” for switching rapidly between extremes, call a significant level of organization “OCD,” describe a somewhat high energy or chaotic person as “a spaz” or sarcastically say “I’m going to kill myself” or pretend to put a gun to their head in response to an annoying situation.  

 

As with all slurs and problematic language, hearing these words and phrases used casually is uncomfortable if not upsetting but it’s even more so if these words have been used to degrade and dehumanize you. As I said in my article “The Problem with Slurs”: “The purpose of a slur is to undermine [marginalized people’s] humanity and reinforce their oppression.” These health conditions that we have no control over and did not choose for ourselves are not inherently negative and shouldn’t be used to carry that meaning. 

 

 

Introducing Ableism Bingo


For some of the comments mentioned in this article, the problematic nature is fairly obvious but many seem benign if you lack the larger context of hearing these same comments, repeatedly, for years. They may appear harmless to a healthy or abled person, but disabled/chronically ill/mentally ill people share this secret body of knowledge that explains why “Have you tried turmeric?” and “yeah, I have [symptom] sometimes too” will seriously try our patience.  

 

I wanted to increase the awareness about the resistance chronically ill and disabled folks face when they move through the world so that more people can be alerted to the kind of comments to avoid and better understand the societal problems encased within those comments. 

 

But I also wanted to turn an isolating experience into an unexpected source of connection and fun! 

 

Let me introduce you to Ableism Bingo and our first Merch launch:

 

These social media threads enabled people with many different health conditions to bond over an astonishingly universally shared experience. And because our experiences are so similar, I was able to develop a series of bingo cards containing many of the most common and distinctive comments reported by disabled, chronically ill, mentally ill, and neurodivergent folks on social media, along with a few nonverbal scenarios many of us encounter. 

 

If the comments on these cards are immediately familiar to you, that should tell you one thing: You are not alone. You are not the only person encountering resistance in your everyday life. Once you’ve acquired an ableism bingo card, every time you encounter these scenarios in real life, instead of feeling dread, you can get excited-- that's another X on your bingo card! These tired refrains can become your own private game. 

 

There are currently FIVE bingo cards available. First, Ableism Bingo Disability Edition Volume 1 is free for download, and you are welcome to print or share as many copies as you wish! 

 

If you want a card made of quality cardstock with a colorful design and illustrations (pictured below), you can purchase the others on our brand new Zazzle store! Ableism Bingo currently has:

 

 

(Chronic Illness Vol. 2 Edition and the Neurodivergent Edition are still in the works!

 

 

Each bingo card has comments and scenarios tailored to the specific condition it’s dedicated to and includes original hand-drawn illustrations by me! They are between $3.75-3.89 each (or cheaper if you 25+ cards) and about 50% of that cost goes to support Yopp directly! 

 

To make this game interactive, if you get a bingo, just post a picture of your completed bingo card on twitter, Instagram, or Facebook with the hashtag #ableismbingo and give us a little story about how you got your bingo. I promise I will re-share your post on my social media!

 

Happy game playing!

 

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