Behind the scenes of ableist microaggressions.

Recently in my #10ThingsToKnowAboutDisability series, I listed 10 things to know about ableist microaggressions. As I have personally experienced these acts in one way or another, I am unpacking some to give readers a personal insight into how pervasive and prevalent ableism remains in our society. An article that has taken some time to write due to the emotional energy spent revisiting experiences…

  1. Speaking in a sing-song, patronising voice. You know the type, the voice you hear or even use yourself when you’re talking to a baby or a toddler. Imagine copping that as an adult? I’d be rich if I had a dollar for every time someone talks to me in this way. Surprisingly, I’ve experienced this from many people, including people working within the disability sector.
  2. Speaking to the person with a disabled person, rather than directly to the person with a disability. Another one that would make me rich if I had a dollar for every time it happened. For example, I could be at a clothes shop, at the counter with my credit card in hand and the sales staff still talking to the person next to me. One of my most memorable ones of late was a woman who was impressed by my wheelchair when a friend and I were having lunch out somewhere. Instead of talking to me about the wheelchair, she struck up a conversation with my friend about it. I attempted to assert myself into this conversation about me, but to no avail, even when I was leaning over and making a point of looking directly at the stranger.
  3. Assuming all people with the same disability have the same wants and needs. This appears to be a systemic issue and presents itself by assuming a cookie-cutter approach to solutions is acceptable. A good example of this is when I signed up for the foundation for my disability. I did so in my 20s or 30s and was sent out a pack that included a folder for “life skills”. In sending this out there were so many assumptions being made. This is something that children should be receiving, not adults, and certainly not as a blanket mail out. When a disability-focused organisation does something like this, it makes the task of trying to educate the wider community on negative stereotypes even more difficult.
  4. Assuming people with disabilities do not want/have the same experiences with people their same age. This is a big one that I know is felt far and wide in the disability community. I’ve had many a conversation over the years where people have been surprised when I talk about doing things other people my own age are doing. This surprise that I’ve often been met with demonstrates the stereotypes that persist about people with disabilities. The stereotype that people with disabilities are a class all on our own, rather than recognising the many intersectionalities of people living with a disability. For example, I am a woman with a disability. My disability does not disqualify me from my womanhood. However, I have often been excluded from a particular conversation because of the stereotype that the discussion would not be something I could relate to because I have a disability, which is in fact, false.
  5. Saying things like “I don’t see your disability” or “I forget you have a disability because you are so normal”. These types of microaggressions are ones I’ve heard all my life and have been so normalised that I never realised how offensive they were until years later. While they may seem like a compliment, and those who have said it had not meant any offence, these types of compliments position disability as something that shouldn’t be seen (when it’s perfectly fine), and the idea of having a disability is the benchmark of what’s not normal. As a person with a disability, I grew up hearing comments like this, and without realising it, I internalised these comments to the point where I would make sure my wheelchair could not be seen in photos I posted online. I craved to be that “normal” person others saw, without realising I already was.

6. Disputing a disabled person’s experience by offering an alternative opinion of the event when you were not there to see it. This is a big one and speaks to one of my other points, about being a woman with a disability. Some years ago I was having a business lunch and once finished, caught a wheelchair taxi home. While I was waiting for my taxi, a man and a woman walked by. My taxi pulled up and I moved towards the taxi in my manual wheelchair. At this point, the man walking by came up and I could quickly smell the stench of alcohol on his breath. He asked if I needed a hand to which I replied “no thanks, I’m just getting my taxi” and nodded towards the parked taxi. Between the taxi and I was a path of cobblestones. As other wheelchair users will attest, a manual wheelchair and cobblestones aren’t a great mix, and particularly dangerous when you don’t know what you’re doing. Rather than accepting my “no, thanks” this man came up behind me and grabbed my wheelchair, loudly saying “here, I’ll give you a hand!!!” and proceeded to push me fast towards the taxi. Realising the man and the woman he was with was drunk, I did not want to cause a scene, so kept repeatedly saying “NO!” quite loudly and luckily, I was able to grab onto a pole and steady myself to ensure I did not fall out of my wheelchair. I could see the taxi driver did not want to intervene because he was also unsure about what would happen given he was of another nationality. Eventually, the man appeared satisfied I was close enough to the taxi and moved on. When I got home I jumped on to a girls group on Facebook I am a member of, and retold this scary incident. While most were compassionate about what I had just experienced, one member remarked “Wow, you should be appreciative, he was just trying to help!!!.” My response to that was and still is, remarks like this are the reason people with disabilities do not speak up about incidents. As a friend pointed out, what I had experienced was assault. A non-disabled person would not put up with a stranger grabbing their shoulders without their permission and physically pushing them towards a car, and nor should a disabled person. This remark by this person is just one of many suggesting that our complaints are less valid because of this paternalistic view that people with disabilities need help and can’t possibly experience the violence our non-disabled counterparts experience.

Have you caught yourself unintentionally excluding people with disabilities because of the microaggressions you’ve been so used to hearing yourself? As a person with a disability, have you found yourself excluded from something because of a microaggression?




Anthropologist & Disability Inclusion Consultant— wheelchair user helping to remove invisible barriers and reduce the risk of ableism.

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Ainslee Hooper

Ainslee Hooper

Anthropologist & Disability Inclusion Consultant— wheelchair user helping to remove invisible barriers and reduce the risk of ableism.

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