Sitting on the train on the way to my first grad school class last week, I couldn’t help but wonder at how much has changed since my first day as a college freshman. Five years ago, my disability was a part of me that I grappled with on a daily basis. Now, nearly a year-and-a-half removed from getting my undergrad degree, I’ve started the process of getting my Master’s in Disability Studies. And since the school year has just begun for so many of us, it feels like the time is right to come clean about the process of learning to love my disability as part of who I am.
I can trace my struggle back to the fact that my parents chose to send me to a mainstream school, so I grew up surrounded by people who didn’t identify as disabled. They were my teachers, my classmates, my best friends, and they all embodied identities I thought I needed to have. I spent years trying to dodge the realities of my disability, instead attempting to assimilate with the able-bodied people around me. Hearing someone say “oh, I forgot you use a wheelchair” was the ultimate compliment.
Making people “forget” was as close as I could get to hiding my disability, and I thrived on the feeling. It didn’t take long once I began public school to realize that I could embrace my disability only when it was convenient for me and then spend the rest of the time trying to dissociate from it enough to be perceived as “normal.” In other words, I had it in me to be proud of my disability, and at times I definitely was, but I usually wanted to stay away from my disability as an identifier, to be known as Emily, without being identified by visible signs of my disability. Looking back on it, I’m not even quite sure what I thought I was accomplishing or who I was kidding.
Although my identity issues stemmed from being a disabled girl in a predominantly able-bodied world, they were compounded by the fact that nearly every summer from age 7 to 15, I would spend a few weeks at summer camp for disabled kids, completely reversing my usual daily experiences. Contrary to my school year desires to erase my differences, my differences were oddly erased for me during camp. I went from being the token girl who uses a wheelchair in my school to being surrounded by people with what seemed like every disability imaginable. I was never in a situation where lots of disabled people and lots of people who don’t identify as disabled were all together for purely social reasons; my exposure to disability was essentially a cycle of all or nothing.
Unfortunately, by the time I got to college, my mainstream mentality had taken a toll on me. Not only was I convinced that I needed to separate myself from my disability, but also I felt the need to keep myself separate from others with disabilities. I’m embarrassed to admit this now, but for years, when I would find myself in the vicinity of another disabled person in a public place, I would become uneasy, worried that the presence of that person called way too much extra attention to my own disability.
Being around visibly disabled people wasn’t much of an issue throughout college, because there weren’t many of us. Even so, I was starting to get tired of constantly feeling on edge about directly acknowledging my disability as part of my identity. My life had been focused on two modes of behavior: advocating for myself to be included and have access and equal rights, and then getting as far away from disability as possible so people would forget why I was doing that. It finally hit me that I had become a contradiction on wheels, and I realized how exhausted and confused I was from so many years of trying to figuratively extract myself from the mobile tank attached my butt to conform to mainstream norms.
I didn’t want to live this way anymore. I no longer wanted to feel like such a hypocrite. I wanted to be accepted, and the people around me accepted me as I am, so why couldn’t I do the same – for both myself and the disability community as a whole?
So, I started slowly. I gradually began to consider what being disabled means to me (a topic in and of itself). I dipped my toe in the water of studying disability, taking the few classes available on disability-related topics and taking it upon myself to turn my assignments into chances to incorporate disability themes. Every subject from ancient Greece to the medieval period to human sexuality became a chance for me to explore more about disability history and culture. Most importantly, I actively forced myself to stop constantly apologizing for who I am. This was, and continues to be, one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but the four years I spent in college proved to be the perfect time for me to shed the secret shame I held and embrace my disabled identity.
Want to know the truth? I laughed when people told me about all of their big transformational college moments as I got ready to start my freshman year, but the way my mindset about my disability transformed throughout college is one of the most important things I had the chance to go through. For better or for worse, it led me to make a lifetime commitment to owning my identity as a disabled woman.