Being Disabled “Enough” Part 2 — How the Disability Hierarchy is Harmful to Ourselves

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When we judge who is disabled “enough”, it not only perpetuates the disability hierarchy, but it can also turn inwards. This harmful mindset can appear in the form of internalized ableism, creating feelings of doubt and imposter syndrome. It could be from the gatekeeping that the disability hierarchy creates in the world or even from a desire (even if a subconscious one) to distance oneself from the disability identity and the stigma attached to it.

In part one of “Being Disabled ‘Enough’”, I talked about how the disability hierarchy places some disabilities as more socially acceptable or “normal”, often because someone is more likely to be able to “pass” as non-disabled. This sets us up as a society to believe that some people are “more” disabled than others, leading to harmful judgments about complete strangers we encounter in our daily lives. But it goes deeper than that.

The disability hierarchy is so ingrained in society that it affects our own thoughts too. In part one, I started with an example of thinking things like, “Well, I’m not that disabled.” If you take that a step further, it could become: “I’m not disabled enough.”

Imposter syndrome, defined by Psychology Today, is when people “feel that they aren’t as competent or intelligent as others might think – and that soon enough, people will discover the truth about them”1. Putting a disabled twist onto this, the disability hierarchy can also lead to the notion of your disability being “less valid” than others’, to the point of discounting your own disability and/or disability identity completely.

A personal example may help: my chronic illnesses present in flares based on weather, physical activity, posture, sleep, stress, my menstrual cycle (yes! For folx with a uterus, consider this as a possible factor if tracking triggers), the day of the week, the price of gas… basically, who knows. Sometimes, I can figure out a trigger. Other times, I have to just shrug and deal with it.

So, at times, I can go for a while without my fibromyalgia flaring (though I’m still navigating my other disabilities) to the point that I wonder if my symptoms were really bad enough to earn that diagnosis. Fibromyalgia is an exclusionary diagnosis, meaning that other causes are ruled out. There’s no test or hard evidence with a simple “yes” or “no”. And when I look at my friend who has fibro too, they have pain consistently, not in flares like I do. So who am I to complain about fibro when they’re in pain every day?

But then when my fibro does flare again, I actually experience a sense of relief – just for a split second. Because oh, right, it is real, and that was just my internalized ableism peeking out. My experience is legitimate. Just because it presents differently doesn’t make my experience any less valid than my friend’s. And it doesn’t mean that my friend’s disability is worse than mine. It’s all relative. And all valid.

These disability hierarchy imposter syndrome thoughts might mean that you don’t apply for accommodations or assistance. For instance, I had a friend in college who had severe food allergies but didn’t end up going to the disability office until junior year because it didn’t “count” as a disability to him. Or maybe you don’t seek a medical or psychological professional’s advice until it gets “bad enough”, like another friend of mine with ADHD who only sought assistance after they were failing their graduate classes. Or maybe your internalized ableism prevents you from using adaptive products out of embarrassment or pride. The list goes on.

The disability hierarchy leads to gatekeeping and “othering” within the community. For some, this “othering” can lead to a desire, even if it’s a subconscious one, to distance yourself from the stigmatized label of “disabled”, and by extension, from those who are more visibly disabled and can’t “pass”. For other people, we may experience imposter syndrome thoughts, which only get worse as others continue to gatekeep. This can be especially harmful for people who have really connected with the disability community. It can be a rejection, for some people, of a very vital part of their identity.

But we can work towards throwing out the disability hierarchy. Consider what stigmas you may be holding on to about the label of “disabled” or “disability”. What are you really saying when you say “it’s not that bad” – are you comparing yourself to others or simply making a statement about your symptoms? If the disabled community continues to gatekeep each other (which sustains the hierarchy), we will only end up harming ourselves.


Psychology Today. "Imposter Syndrome." Psychology Today, 10 July 2019,