Have you ever been told, “the only real disability is a bad attitude?” Or, the ridiculously patronizing, “you’re not disabled, your differently abled?” Or, how about, “you’re only disabled if you let yourself think that way?” Perhaps you are someone who has once said these things to someone. If you are, stop now and let me explain to you why those phrases aren’t actually helping disabled people, they are hurting them.
Here’s the thing, “disabled” is not a bad word and refusing to acknowledge my disability doesn’t help me or anyone else with a disability. I know that may be hard to believe for some people, but it’s true. Allow me to explain all the ways this attitude is harmful to disabled people:
1. Denying Accessibility
As discussed in my article Why Accessibility Matters, it’s incredibly important for disabled people to have access to public, and even private, places. We want our friends and family to choose places that are accessible to us for outings and events, if they really want us to be there, that is. If truly the only disability is a bad attitude, then making places accessible for those with disabilities could be seen as enabling that bad attitude. For instance, when I’m faced with a few steps on a bad day and someone says, “come on, it’s only a couple of steps, you can do it. Stop being so negative and believe in yourself.” The truth is that yes, I can climb those few steps, but it takes far more energy than any able bodied person could ever imagine. Me climbing the stairs isn’t some inspirational moment of me overcoming my disability, it’s me inflicting more harm and pain on my body than is necessary for the comfort of an abled person.
Disabled people don’t need to overcome our disabilities to better fit into the abled world around us, yet, that is what we are constantly told. The fable of the disabled person “overcoming” their disability by becoming, or acting, more abled is celebrated over and over again. It’s constantly spread because it gives abled people an excuse to stop making the world more accessible to us. Abled people make themselves feel better about denying us this accessibility, because they are “helping” us, and disabled people get gas-lighted into believing that maybe it really is all in our heads.
It’s ok if abled people deny us access, because our disabilities are really just a state of mind that we refuse to break free of. In other words, it’s our fault that we are still disabled, because we haven’t chosen to break free from that mentality. This seems to be especially true with invisible disabilities and illnesses, since people tend to think that if we don’t look a certain way than we couldn’t possibly be as ill or disabled as we say we are. I have seen and heard abled people tell those who are disabled by their depression, PTSD, or anxiety that they just need some fresh air or to think happy thoughts and they won’t be disabled anymore. Life isn’t like Peter Pan, you can’t throw some pixie dust on us and make our disabilities magically disappear simply because they are inconvenient to you.
Blaming disabled and/or chronically ill people for their disabilities/illnesses doesn’t help us to get magically better. It’s not like a powerful speech given by a coach in a sports movie that inspires the team to fight harder and win. No, this “if you just tried harder” attitude is not to help disabled people at all. It’s about abled people. It’s about excusing their refusal to adapt and giving them a false sense of control over their future as abled/healthy people. After all, if disabilities are really just a state of mind that we can think away, then abled people don’t have to face the reality that they, too, can become disabled at any moment.
But, using us to make people feel better about their abledness not only doesn’t actually protect them from becoming disabled, it also is incredibly harmful to the self-esteem of disabled people. I mean, think about it, do you really think that yelling at a depressed person that their depression is their own fault is going to help them feel better about it? Blame doesn’t inspire us to rise up out of our disabilites, because we aren’t faking our disabilities. Why would we choose to face constant disbelief, people who refuse to understand, blame, criticism, and a world that has not made a place for us? Seriously, what enjoyment would we be getting out of it?
The fact that people think that we are choosing to live with disabilities, chronic illnesses, or chronic pain simply because we are too lazy to lift ourselves up out of it, shows just how little they understand what it’s like to live with these conditions.
3. Disabilities Aren’t Inherently Bad
You know what makes life with a disability hard? Ableism. I know, I know, I’ve said that before, but that’s because it is so important for people to understand. Living in a world that values people based on their productivity, that is widely inaccessible, and that constantly looks down on disabled people as being “less than” is the absolute most difficult part of my disability that I’ve encountered. Being told that you are a burden to society carries a weight like no other. It wraps it’s cold hard grip around you, squeezing your breath out, and dragging you down into the depths of depression. It leaves you to question everything, including if there is any purpose in you continuing to live in this world when the world has made it so clear that there is no place for you in it.
Now, I know that this subject can be tricky when talking about chronic illnesses, as many of us would wish our illnesses away, if possible. But, it’s important to recognize the distinct difference between hating my illnesses, and hating my disability. Yes, I hate that I can’t dance without passing out, or that my life has become about conserving spoons. But, I don’t hate that I’m disabled, not anymore at least. I’ve learned that there is no shame in using mobility aids, or having a disability placard, or asking for accessibility. I am not embarrassed or ashamed to say that I am disabled, or that I have chronic illness. Yes, I hate many of the symptoms I deal with, but not my disability.
Yet, many abled people seem to hate the existence of disabilities. They promote ideas of eugenics when it comes to preventing disabled babies from being born, they celebrate the elimination of disabilities through aborting disabled fetuses, and they scream and protest life-saving medical technology on the fear that it would make their child neurologically different. Just the fact that the book and movie of Me Before You (a story about a disabled man who wanted to have a last hoorah before killing himself) was popular shows how ready abled people are to accept that disabled people would want to, and should, end their lives rather than continue living as a disabled person.
Maybe the typical abled person isn’t as extreme as those described above, but, to me, denying my disability or treating it like it’s a dirty word sends pretty much the same message. It tells me that you believe my disability is something that I should be ashamed of, that it’s a negative thing, and that I should try harder to be abled once again. It tells me that you are uncomfortable with who I am, and that you believe I should be as well. It tells me that you think that your abledness makes you more of an authority on my experiences and identifiers than I am. And, it tells me that you think that I am a less valuable person than an abled person due to my disability.
I urge you to say the word. Call me disabled. Refer to anyone who refers to themselves as disabled, as…well…disabled. Recognize that if you are struggling to say the word, then perhaps you have some prejudices and biases that you need to reflect on and move past. If you are a disabled person, know that it’s not your job to make abled people feel more comfortable with who you are.
Ability doesn’t define your worth as a human being.
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