Media accounts of individuals with disabilities who have achieved something will often refer to such people as having overcome their disabilities in order to become successful. Sometimes such people will also be referred to as brave, as if they had any alternative to living with their disabilities.
The problem with this assessment is that it suggests that people with disabilities ought to essentially disown their impairments and find success despite their disabilities, rather than with them or because of them. This implies that our disabilities are not really a part of us—just some sort of encumbrance—and that they are nothing we would claim as part of our identity as human beings. In other words, the best we can do is to render our disabilities invisible through our achievements.
This means that a person’s condition, such as blindness, paraplegia, or a learning disorder, is like some unwanted appendage that a person has to drag around and feel ashamed of, get rid of, or overcome. And our experience is dissonant and uncomfortable, because the truth is that being disabled is inseparable from who we are. Some of us have developed from infancy with a disability, and some have acquired a disability that has markedly changed the course of life. Either way, we wouldn’t be who we are without disability, and having a disability is woven into the multifaceted fabric of everyday life. On the one hand, we have disability-related experiences all the time, and, on the other hand, society pushes us to consider our disabilities irrelevant.
People with disabilities will often end up in therapy with anxiety disorders or depression resulting from this dissonance. Many times they feel uncomfortable in their bodies; they may be burdened by shame or a sense of constantly needing to prove themselves; they are hypervigilant, self-conscious, self-blaming, or self-punishing; some may be workaholics, and some may feel trapped in their lives; and they often feel empty and say they don’t know who they really are.
The work of therapy is often to help people integrate their disabilities into their sense of self and let go of society’s mandates for them. This process helps people figure out how to live as themselves in the way that will be most fulfilling for them, given all the parameters of their lives, including their disabilities—society be damned.
If we are successful as people with disabilities, it is actually because we have succeeded in integrating our disabilities into our sense of self, and not because we have overcome them. Being disabled is a part of us, just as being Jewish, or Turkish, or short is a part of us. It is certainly not the only aspect to our identities, and it is not irrelevant.
While we will likely continue to have to deal with social discrimination (not to mention downright foolishness) and all of the pain-in-the-behind aspects of living with a disability on a daily basis in an inaccessible world, psychologically, we will be freer.
© Copyright 2010 by By Wendy E. Smith, MA, LMHC, therapist in Seattle, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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