Hurt feelings and identity

Disability is not a death sentence

When your very identity is something that people deny or reject with every fiber of their being, even with an offhand comment, it hurts in a way that is hard to describe.

When you sit in the University Center, you have the chance of engaging in interesting conversations with other students, and one I stumbled into last week presented a devastating reality that was brought to my attention.

There he was, a complete stranger my age, saying that he would rather be dead than be disabled in any way, shape or form. I know he meant no harm by his comment, and it wasn’t directed at me necessarily, but its sentiment carries an unseen weight that many do not see. Preferring death over disability is a belief held by a lot of people. Even in academia, the idea that one’s mind and body can become impaired is a source of anxiety. Ableism is a constant strain in our communities.

When saying disability, I am including people living with physical, cognitive or otherwise invisible disabilities that impact someone’s quality of life. Disability may emerge at birth or occur during a person’s lifetime at any stage of mobility; it affects every culture, ethnicity, education level, gender and socioeconomic status. Despite the fact that almost 12 percent of our population is disabled and disabled students like myself exist on campus, a lot of misconceptions and bias exists in our society.

When nondisabled and able-bodied people say that they would prefer death to what limited view they have of disabled lives and how they are lived, they are inferring that people living with disabilities lead lives not worth living. I have dealt with my own minefields of conversation here on campus when I am forthcoming about my health status. Being a disabled woman is as integrated into my being as much as breathing. It is a part of me that cannot be denied or ignored (my chronic pain makes sure of that).

Disability is not a dirty word that should be shirked, and I wish that more people knew that. Would that man have said the same, presented with the vibrant and fulfilling lives of people living any way they can? Disability is not a death sentence.

Death seems acceptable when people consider disability, and what a slippery moral slope that is. Do they think that way for other circumstances or demographics? It’s hard not to take it personally. Just because something intersects with disability doesn’t mean that you can just disregard it because it makes you uncomfortable.

I believe that to show people how we live, we need to be cognizant of events happening on campus that highlight disability and lives of those affected–celebrate it even.

A schedule of events will be offered in October during Disability Awareness Month, with the goal of fostering acceptance and understanding among visitors, students and staff members on campus. One of the events, the showing of “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot – A Film by Gus Van Sant” on Monday, Oct. 15 in the University Center, is one that I am particularly excited for people to watch.

While we shouldn’t need to illustrate all of the ways disabled people live, proper representation in media is important. Even off campus, more and more people are seeing how disability exists in America. When you have a chance, pick up Teen Vogue’s September issue. Three disabled women grace the covers, and I’m hoping that since conversations about diversity and inclusivity often overlook disability, we can remedy that.

Disability is strong and terrible, a weakness and a strength. It is not death nor the end, and it is an identity for many students who walk our campus. Include those students in your conversations and consider their impact when having conversations in your circles.