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How Ableism Negatively Affects the Mental Health of Disabled People

By Disability Rights Advocate and Writer Emily Brown • mental health and ableism, ableism, disabilities and mental health, disabled people mental health, people with disabilities and mental health, mental illness, mental illness and disability, ableism affects, mental health care for disabled people, mental health care for people with disabilities • May 04, 2023

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, which helps raise awareness and fight the stigma associated with mental illness. As we focus on mental health issues, these conversations must support the mental health of marginalized people and make room for the voices of individuals within these communities.

As a disabled person and disability advocate, I’ve witnessed that a disabled person’s mental health is often treated as an afterthought. While the disability community often engages in discussions of mental health, the healthcare industry remains primarily focused on our physical health. While our physical health is important, we must remember that physical and mental health go hand in hand. So, better mental health care for disabled people means better overall health for our community.

Disabled people are frequently held back by ableism in their mental and physical healthcare. The Center for Disability Rights states, “Ableism is a set of beliefs or practices that devalue and discriminate against people with physical, intellectual, or psychiatric disabilities and often rests on the assumption that disabled people need to be ‘fixed’ in one form or the other.” Here is how ableism negatively impacts both our mental health and our ability to access mental health services.

Childhood bullying and mental health

The CDC states, “Adults with disabilities report experiencing frequent mental distress almost 5 times as often as adults without disabilities.” Disabled people experience poor mental health for a number of reasons. Mental distress can start in childhood when a disabled child is bullied by peers. According to the Special Needs Alliance, “Any child can be a victim of bullying or harassment, but research has shown that children with special needs are both more likely to be bullied or harassed and also more likely to be seriously harmed by it. In addition, children with special needs may be less likely to be able to seek help to stop it.” Bullying not only teaches disabled children that they are different and that being different is bad, but it also reinforces that they shouldn’t say anything or seek help when they are mistreated. When disabled children speak up against discrimination, their complaints often go unheard, or they receive pushback — being ignored or questioned about whether the bullying was as bad as they say it was, or if it even happened at all.

When disabled children are bullied, it can affect how they see themselves for the rest of their lives, leading to lifelong mental health issues. According to, Research suggests that children and youth who are bullied over time are more likely than those not bullied to experience depression, anxiety and low self-esteem.

School administrators and teachers can also perpetuate harmful behavior. According to the online and adaptive learning platform, “Ableism in education is when a school system that believes it is treating and educating students well, is actually perpetuating the discrimination. This may mean ignoring bullying of a student who has disabilities, or pretending that the disability does not exist. It may also mean favoring students that are able-bodied or the inability to implement strategies that could enable a person with disabilities to learn effectively.” When a disabled child's needs are neglected and ignored by trusted adults, it teaches the child that the world isn’t meant for them. It also teaches them to be grateful for whatever they receive, even if it is the bare minimum, or less.

Emotional labor

One aspect often overlooked in mental health conversations is the emotional labor required of disabled people. Joshin, a platform that supports companies and individuals in creating an inclusive culture for disabled and neurodiverse people, states, “Since the term originated in 1983, ‘emotional labor’ has evolved to more generally encompass work that goes unpaid and unrecognized, and in the social justice world, it refers to the extra invisible work that marginalized people have to deal with while living within systems that oppress them.” Not every disabled person is a disability advocate, nor should they have to be. However, disabled people are often forced to become advocates for their basic needs and to fight for those needs when they experience pushback.

Being forced to be an advocate can look as simple as asking someone not to push your wheelchair, or as complex as fighting for reasonable accommodations at school or work. There are few spaces or times when disabled people are free from this need for advocacy. It bleeds into our personal relationships and daily interactions with strangers, making this never-ending emotional labor incredibly exhausting and stressful.

Lack of resources

According to NAMI, “1,784,012 people in Minnesota [or 31% of Minnesotans] live in a community that does not have enough mental health professionals.” The shortage makes getting mental health services a twisted version of playing the lottery; your location, insurance and financial resources all dictate what services you can receive. Additionally, many mental health professionals aren’t trained or experienced in serving disabled people, which narrows the list of mental health care providers even further. It can take years for people to find the right services – if they find them at all.

Even when disabled people do find support, they often face ableism. They may experience emotional labor because they have to explain the disability experience to a potential therapist. Or the therapist may question the disabled person’s experience and discount their trauma, creating a vicious cycle.

To truly support disabled people, we need to advocate and create more access to mental health services that are disability-friendly and disability-focused. Non-disabled people must consciously work to avoid ableist behaviors and biases in all their interactions, because not all disabilities are visible, and acting in an ableist way perpetuates discriminatory behavior. And people must teach their children to be empathetic and inclusive humans, who value and support disabled people.  

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