When something makes you different from many of those around you – whether it’s how you look, act, talk or move – it tends to reflect how others define you.
This is especially true when you have a visible disability. It’s often the first characteristic to be noticed, and unfortunately, is sometimes accompanied by any combination of misconceptions. Common ones, as you’re probably well aware, are that you’re automatically brave, inspiring, sad, or deserving of sympathy.
In the face of these judgements, those of us with disabilities can find ourselves fashioning our identities around our disabilities, sometimes without even being conscious of doing so.
However, as John Altman recently reflected in The New York Times, you aren’t your disability. Your identity comprises an array of many facets, including your likes, your dislikes, your relationships, your interests and too many other elements to even try to list.
Consider taking the following steps as you strive to create a healthier personal identity for yourself.
Change your Mindset
Those of us with disabilities can often be made to feel that others are making modifications just for us, or giving us special accommodations.
It can help to keep in mind that everyone needs accommodations to go about their lives. As Altman points out, people with no apparent handicap still could not get from one floor to another without stairs, for example, and it would be ridiculous to suggest they could do otherwise.
If the world were built to be inclusive to everyone, it would be much easier for us to interact with others and form relationships on a day-to-day basis – without our disabilities being spotlighted. That’s what we all deserve.
Thankfully, we can work toward that goal. The landmark Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) went a long way toward defining the type of accessibility we all should have, but we need to continue to fight to make its vision a reality and ensure that laws are enforced.
Connect with Your Disability Identity
Although we can hope for a day when we can all work and play together in easily accessible schools, businesses and other social places, we can also make an effort to connect more meaningfully with the part of our identity that does center on our disability.
This article from the American Psychological Association reviewed available literature on the topic of disability identity, and identified the main narratives that tend to define it.
First, many of us find meaning in forming relationships with others who have common experiences. This type of community of similarly abled folks can make us feel at home and understood.
We also generally need to participate in society as a whole with the same rights and responsibilities as the rest of the group to feel a healthy sense of identity. We have to come to value ourselves as important to others and to society, and to be proud of ourselves and our abilities. We also need to understand, however, that we’re often the targets of bias and discrimination because of our disabilities.
Finally, we can find meaning associated with having a disability. This could mean discovering personal acceptance through looking at what’s positive about your disability, or what benefits you’ve gained from it.
Not all of these disability narratives will be equally important to everyone. However, by exploring a few that work for you – whether it’s acknowledging that you’ve been discriminated against or reaching out to form new relationships with others facing the same issues – can prove to be very helpful.
Help Make a Change
An article published in Disability Studies Quarterly examining the topic of disability identity noted that as people with disabilities continue to connect and pursue their identities, they’re getting “support by formalized support structures.”
Formal education programs and groups for those with disabilities are helping to communicate the idea of disability identity to the rest of the population.
Messages about disability as a social and political issue and the importance of putting people before disability are gaining awareness.
By connecting with our own identities, continuing to live and work in our communities, and even advocating for ourselves and others with disabilities, we can continue to help make the world more accessible.
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