And now that I have your attention, welcome to my TEDTalk.
To be clear, I really did take the midnight train going anywhere. I didn’t like where it went, but that’s a different story.
October is Disability Awareness month. If you talked to me five years ago, or two years ago, or maybe even a year ago, I would deny identifying as “disabled.” I’ve spent my whole life running from that label, which is funny considering I can’t run, but I’ve slowly come to identify with the label more and more.
I learned this year that there’s a Disability Pride month. It’s July if you’re curious. Now it’s Disability Awareness month. I’ve spent a lot of time this year thinking about what it means to be aware and, as a disabled person, what it means to be prideful of disability. After all, I’ve been taught my whole life that disability is a bad thing.
This was never overt. No one ever walked up to me and shamed me for being disabled or outwardly expressed that it is so unfortunate that I’m disabled. But there has always been pity. I wasn’t born this way. When people hear my story (you know, the train) there is always the immediate “I’m sorry” that follows. And with pity, there’s the obvious difference in treatment. There are stairs for the “normal” people and elevators for the others. All the “normal” kids get to play dodgeball, basketball, kickball or really anything with balls, while the others have to sit on the sideline. “Normal” people take trains. Others get hit by them.
I’ve spent my whole life practicing to disguise my “otherness.” Disability is bad; that’s what I was taught, so I tried to hide anything “other” as best as I could. If I try really hard, my speech is pretty good. If I focus enough, I can minimize the limp.
But it’s more than just the overtly physical things. I’m always early to class. I don’t turn anything in late. I overcommit myself when it comes to extracurriculars. If a friend wants to hang out, then I drop everything to do so. I put myself through physical labor my body can’t handle so people don’t think I’m slacking off. I don’t complain about my chronic pain or anything relating to my disability, I force myself to walk way too fast to keep up with the crowd, and I get very little sleep to do it all despite the fact that I will pay for that in the form of extra pain and difficulty moving. I’ve killed myself to try and “fit in.”
And despite everything, it’s not enough. I get abandoned by groups I’m walking with because I physically can’t manage to walk fast enough. I get excluded from participating in conversations because too many people are talking at once and being half-deaf, I can’t keep track of it all. Professors ignore my hand in class and blatantly ignore me because they don’t want to have to deal with trying to understand what I say. I’ve even had a professor basically tell me I should drop out of a class because they “don’t think I’ll benefit” from it due to my disabilities, and I spent a whole semester trying to prove this professor wrong.
I thought I could make myself blend in. I thought I could be “more” than my disability. But being more than my disability meant trying to erase it entirely in hopes that if they didn’t see my disability, then they would see the person behind it.
The reality is, however, that my disability is the first thing people see, and I can’t erase something so clearly there.
Disability seems to be synonymous with incapability. It completely derails the idea that there’s any potential for more. When you come off as incapable, the world feels justified when they write you off. And that’s what happens to people with disabilities. We get written off because society is very reluctant to accommodate, even though the smallest accommodation gives people like me the tools to do almost anything everyone else can. Abled society, however, doesn’t give us those tools because it sees disability as a “personal” issue. It’s not a “personal” issue. While the implications of disability are very unique for each individual, experiences like mine can be found across the board. Disability impacts one in five Americans, making it the largest minority in the United States. We are in your schools, your jobs, your libraries, working alongside you in every way you can think of. Imagine how much more we could do together if society took a moment to give us the tools we need to thrive.
And you can do this just by listening to us. It’s 2020. We’ve been screaming for our basic access needs alongside the same race, gender, BIPOC movement that’s been riding in this country for years. If you want to help us, do what you would do to any other minority—let us make the call. Listen to what we’re saying—what we have been saying. Don’t speak over us, exclude us or speak for us. Instead, be our sounding board. And maybe then, my half-deaf self can participate in the discussion.
XOXO – Your favorite trainwreck. <3