Challenging Assumptions About What It Means to Be Disabled
Words can hurt, especially labels. We can deny a label all we want, but terms like “disabled” will close many doors.
What does it mean to be disabled, though? I find the term offensive because it implies I’m not capable, which is far from the truth.
Do I feel like my condition affects my lifestyle? Absolutely, but I’ve made adjustments so I can still be a contributing member of society.
Do I have a decent quality of life? If you follow me on Instagram, it’s pretty clear that I’m making the best of things, every chance I get.
My biggest gripe with the term “disabled” is how, for some, it conjures imagery of people who are incapacitated and a drain on society. The term puts us all in the same category, regardless of our physical and mental abilities, and that’s definitely discriminatory behavior.
The same goes for “handicapped.” It tends to conjure imagery of old, sick people who are, of course, always in a wheelchair. Our bodies deteriorate with age, but illness can affect the young while strength can still be enjoyed later in life.
I believe many don’t understand what these terms really mean.
Case in point, I have a disabled parking permit, which I only use when I need it. I’ve had NMO for almost 13 years, and on tough days I suffer from symptoms like fatigue or my legs feeling like lead. Parking closer to the building allows me to conserve energy, which I desperately need on tough days.
Yet the icon for an accessible parking spot is a wheelchair. Sometimes I use a cane or other walking aid, but not always. On days when I’m not using an aid, I’ve been yelled at, called a fraud, accused of stealing a grandparent’s parking permit, and been threatened to have the cops called on me. People have taken photos of me and my license plate, which are probably circulating on social media alongside some salty name-calling. On all those occasions, I was just trying to pick up groceries, meet a friend for a coffee, or go on a movie date with my husband.
Can I really be upset with these people when the disability symbol is a wheelchair and I don’t have one? I’ve used a wheelchair in the past; at one point I had to relearn how to walk. But there’s no easy way to explain that to angry passersby.
When someone writes off those with physical or mental challenges, believing they are unable to contribute to society in any meaningful way, that’s ableism.
While not all ableists holler at complete strangers, it’s important we ask ourselves if we’ve ever made an assumption about a disabled person’s capabilities.
Don’t be embarrassed if you have. Even within the disability community, we can make assumptions. I once wrongly assumed that my friend, another NMO patient with a visual impairment, wouldn’t be able to ski. She proved me wrong, skiing alongside a guide who spoke to her while we went down the mountain. It’s worth mentioning that she’s now a brilliant snowboarder and a successful chef and restaurateur.
It’s especially awkward to explain how I can be both capable and disabled. I’m often met with disbelief and praise. “I had no idea! You’re so brave! How do you make it look so easy?!”
I know I’m expected to act humbled and gracious in these situations, but I’m secretly annoyed that yet another person is applauding me for “overcoming” my disability. I’m facing an ableist who has likely written off many disabled people.
I want others to understand that I’m living my life like everyone else. My disability doesn’t define me; rather, it’s just one part of me.
Change is hard. That’s why I tend to shy away from the term “disabled.” I’m not embarrassed by my truth, but I don’t want to be the poster child for disability, constantly educating ableists about their wrong assumptions.
Every disabled person I’ve met has been incredibly capable. Subconsciously, I think most of us have a point to prove, so we find big ways to contribute to society.
And while it’s painful to admit, most of us have lost fellow patients. In their honor, our community lives life to the fullest every day. While our grief and fears sometimes go unspoken, we hold a great appreciation for life.
I hope for a future where we might redefine disability or even get rid of the term altogether. We all face challenges in life — some of us simply need better parking.
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