Recently, on my Twitter feed, I saw this question: “Do you define yourself as disabled and why?” To which I replied: “Disabled has become such a negative word. ‘Don’t limit yourself,’ they say. Newsflash: It’s not limiting, it’s describing me. I have a disability. That’s me. I still achieve and dream and pursue.”
I hate the negative connotations that surrounds the word disability. The entire word itself annoys me. Dis-able: the inability to do something; you are literally not-able. The flip-side is an effort on the -able side of things to “help out” by putting a positive spin on things: “Don’t limit yourself!” “Defining yourself as disable is setting yourself up for failure.” I’ve also heard, “You are only as disabled as you believe you are.” I can’t tell you how much that makes me twitch, and while well meaning, I’ll explain why it irks me so badly. Much of what I feel is summed up in that Tweet.
In my mind, to be disabled can imply many things that might be seen or not seen by the naked eye. There’s a greater chunk of my life that I did not see myself as disabled, even though I struggled with issues that others might consider a disability. For instance: I’m bipolar, I struggle with anxiety, OCD and more recently (within the last 7 years) I was also diagnosed with PTSD and ADHD. All of these things, separate, or as a lump sum, can be seen as disabilities. But I did not see myself as a disabled person primarily because the -abled world has difficulty with mental illness qualifying as a disability because it’s not seen.
In the last five years, however, with the advent of my many physical issues making it difficult for me to walk, and with my health in such a state that work has become impossible and even managing day-to-day activities difficult, I see myself as disabled. The interesting thing, is the sudden awareness that I felt when I realized I have been disabled all along. And while these disabilities are an inherent part of who I am, even define me in a very basic, physical way, they do not define what I can achieve or dream or pursue in my life. I am disabled. The disabilities are a part of who I am. But the disabilities do not determine what I might become.
I do not want to sound presumptuous here and I am afraid I am in danger of doing just that. I know I may not have the same perspective as someone who has had a more difficult time but I am striving to understand it all better. As an advocate for the chronic illness/pain community I feel it is important that I understand how others view disability as both a term that is used to define them and how they use it to define themselves. I know it is fundamentally different to have lived disable all your life and have something happen where you find yourself disabled, but I think we can use both points of view in our efforts to make it a better world for those of us with disabilities. Ultimately, this is the common goal. A better world socially, and a better accessible world for all of us.
[This isn’t the first time I’ve written about this and likely not my last. Everyday that I live with my own disability, as well as meet new people managing their own disabilities, I learn more about what it means to be disabled. As always, thank you for reading.]