Ableist hostility disguised as friendliness

Some people relate to people with disabilities in a dangerous and confusing way. They see themselves as helpers, and at first they seem to really like the person. Then the helper suddenly become aggressively hostile, and angry about the disabled person’s limitations or personality (even though they have not changed in any significant way since they started spending time together). Often, this is because the helper expected their wonderful attention to erase all of the person’s limitations, and they get angry when it doesn’t.

The logic works something like this:

  • The helper thinks that they’re looking past the disability and seeing the “real person” underneath.
  • They expect that their kindness  will allow the “real person” to emerge from the shell of disability.
  • They really like “real person” they think they are seeing, and they’re excited about their future plans for when that person emerges.
  • But the “real person” is actually figment of their imagination.

The disabled person is already real:

  • The helper doesn’t like this already-real disabled person very much
  • The helper ignores most of what the already-real person actually says, does, thinks, and feels.
  • They’re looking past the already-real person, and seeing the ghost of someone they’d like better.

This ends poorly:

  • The already-real person never turns into the ghost the helper is imagining
  • Disability stays important; it doesn’t go away when a helper tries to imagine it out of existence
  • Neither do all of the things the already-real disabled person thinks, feels, believes, and decides
  • They are who they are; the helper’s wishful thinking doesn’t turn them into someone else
  • The helper eventually notices that the already-real person isn’t becoming the ghost that they’ve been imagining
  • When the helper stop imagining the ghost, they notice that the already-real person is constantly doing, saying, feeling, believing, and deciding things that the helper hates
  • Then the helper gets furious and becomes openly hostile

The helper has actually been hostile to the disabled person the whole time

  • They never wanted to spend time around the already-real disabled person; they wanted someone else
  • (They probably didn’t realize this)
  • At first, they tried to make the already-real disabled person go away by imagining that they were someone else
  • (And by being kind to that imaginary person)
  • When they stop believing in the imaginary person, they become openly hostile to the real person

Tl;dr Sometimes ableist hostility doesn’t look like hostility at first. Sometimes people who are unable or unwilling to respect disabled people seem friendly at first. They try to look past disability, and they interact with an imaginary nondisabled person instead of the real disabled person. They’re kind to the person they’re imagining, even though they find the real person completely unacceptable. Eventually they notice the real person and become openly hostile. The disabled person’s behavior has not changed; the ableist’s perception of it has. When someone does this to you, it can be very confusing — you were open about your disability from the beginning, and it seemed like they were ok with that, until they suddenly weren’t. If this has happened to you, you are not alone.

“Choosing to be disabled”

Ableists often believe that “choosing to be disabled” is a major social problem. They aggressively believe that most disabilities aren’t real, and that people could stop being disabled if they’d just make better choices. They think most disabled people are fakers who just stay disabled out of laziness.

They may see accessibility and accommodations as “enabling”, and try to get them taken away. Or, they may try to force people into treatment (whether or not safe and effective treatment actually exists.) Or they may just be mean and hostile towards disabled people they encounter. Or any number of other things. This hurts all disabled people badly.

People with disabilities often feel like they have to prove that they are not faking, and that their disability isn’t a choice. This can lead us to worry a lot about whether we’re somehow doing this on purpose. In this state of mind, it’s really easy to find things that feel like evidence that we’re fake.

Disability usually involves tradeoffs. We can’t choose to have all of the same abilities as nondisabled people, but we often can make some choices about which abilities to prioritize. This can superficially look like “choosing to be disabled” if you don’t understand how disability works.
For instance:


  • All medications have side effects
  • Managing the condition and the side effects can involve complicated tradeoffs
  • There is usually more than one option
  • It can often be a choice of what abilities you prioritize most, and which impairments are most tolerable
  • You may be able to choose to make any particular impairment go away
  • That doesn’t mean you could choose to be unimpaired
  • Ableists will think you are faking no matter which choices you make. They are wrong.

Mobility equipment:

  • People with mobility impairments often have more than one option, and there can be complex tradeoffs. 
  • Eg, which is more important to someone?
  • Being able to go further without fatigue (in a power chair) or being able to ride in a regular car (with a collapsable wheelchair)?
  • Being able to travel a mile on the sidewalk (in a wheelchair), or being able to use all of the subway stops (by walking)?
  • Being able to get into inaccessible buildings (by walking), or being able to go out without being in pain (in a wheelchair)?
  • Retaining the ability to walk (by spending a lot of time doing physical therapy) or being able to take a full course load in college (by spending that time on studying and losing the ability to walk)?
  • No matter which choice you make, ableists who don’t understand disability will see it as “choosing to be disabled”. They are wrong.

There are any number of other examples, for every type of disability. This affects every kind of disability, including physical, sensory, cognitive, psychiatric, chronic illness, and the categories I forgot to mention.

Tl;dr We all have to make choices about how to manage our disabilities, and there are often complicated tradeoffs. No matter which choices we make, ableists will think we’re making the wrong ones. No matter which choices we make, ableists will think that we are faking.

In the face of this kind of hostility, it is easy to start doubting ourselves and believing that we’re fake and terrible. It helps to remember that the ableists don’t know what they are talking about (even if they are disabled themselves). Making choices about how to manage disability is just part of life. The ableists are not experts in how you should be living you life; they are wrong and they are mean.