I’ve been doing a bit of reading lately that’s really got me thinking about one of the core issues around disability: how do people feel about identifying as disabled and if they don’t like to identify, why not?
I can comfortably say that I do identify as disabled. Now. But what about when I was at school?
I gave this question some thought, because I did have a lot of negative feelings around my disability as a young teenager in secondary school and from my reading it would seem that a lot of people didn’t want to identify as disabled during those turbulent teenage years.
I came to the conclusion that yes, I did identify as disabled, at least for most of my secondary school life. Now, you may be thinking this is a really good thing that I accepted my disability; that I didn’t feel the need to separate myself from it or pretend it wasn’t there. You’re probably right.
But on the flip side, what is society’s view of disabled people? Clue: it’s in the word! Everywhere you look disabled people are portrayed as less able, different, like there’s something ‘wrong’ with us. We’re often viewed with pity for being given the life situation we have.
So while I identified as disabled, I only saw the negative side of that. I identified with society’s view of disability. I saw how I was different, less capable physically, and this made me feel very separate to my peers. Feeling different extended to feeling like my ideas, views and opinions would be laughed at and ridiculed by others if I shared them, so instead I kept quiet. I built a wall around myself so that no one could get in. It was necessary, I thought, to protect myself.
What about now? I still identify as disabled, perhaps much more readily than I did at school, but the negative side has steadily shrunk over the last few years. Where I used to feel different and less capable I now know that’s not true. I identify as disabled because there are simply things I physically cannot do the way others can, but that doesn’t stop me doing them. I find another way, adapt how it’s done to suit me, or direct somebody else to do it for me. I say direct because I know how I want things done, I just need to communicate that clearly to somebody else, so that effectively they are just my hands. This means I’m not less capable of doing most things, I just might need to do them a different way. I’ve grown much more comfortable asking for help, because doing so doesn’t make me feel less able, it actually feels really empowering. I identify as disabled because my disability is part of who I am, and I’m happy with that.
I went through periods at school and college of wanting to focus on disability and then wanting to do the opposite. For example, at one point in my early teens I thought I wanted to work for the council in whatever department dealt with issues regarding disabled people because I had the experience. Then I decided I didn’t want to do that because I didn’t want to work in the field of disability just because I was disabled. I began to feel like that would be a bit of a cop-out. Essentially, although I couldn’t put words to it until years later, I didn’t want to be defined by my disability; I wanted people to see that there was more to me than that.
Now that I have a much more positive view of myself as a disabled person I see my disability as an important part of who I am. Not the only part, though. I know that my ideas aren’t going to be laughed at, that being interested in certain things doesn’t make me different to other people, it’s all part of who I am and if I have a certain view on something, or a particular interest, chances are if I take down that wall and share it I’ll find others who share the same views and interests.
I don’t see working in the field of disability as a cop-out anymore either. I see it as a strength and as an experience that I can use and share to help others and to change perceptions of disability. Seeing it as a cop out, or as the easy option, would fit with the view of disabled people as less capable, and now I know that view is wrong.
So I’ve learnt a lot about who I am since leaving school. I guess that’s true of anyone. I think, though, that negative perceptions of disability disempower young disabled people in particular. We need to change perceptions so that they do feel able to identify as disabled if they want to, and don’t see it as a negative aspect of themselves but rather as one of many positive aspects. The impact this could have on the future of our society? Massive.