Why We Need to Reshape What It Means to Be a Person With a Disability

Before you begin reading this article, I have a question for you. When you hear the word "disabled," what image does it conjure up? Much to my dismay, according to the thesaurus, the synonyms for disabled are lame, maimed, decrepit, helpless, out-of-commission, and powerless. I learned this sad truth thanks to a Ted Talk given by Aimee Mullins, an athlete who broke records at the Paralympic games in 1996, became a muse for Alexander McQueen and who is now on the front line of prosthetic innovation. As I listened to her speak, I thought to myself: does society truly value people with disabilities?

Growing up, my awkward gait and the obtrusive plastic knee-high braces covering both of my legs caused quite the conversation among my peers. I went to the local public school and was the only student with a physical disability. Kids were curious and asked me questions and made thoughtless remarks, but my young age deterred me from immediately internalizing the tactless comments. It was not until I was older and more mature when I began to reflect on the pieces of my identity. As I pieced together my traumas and triumphs, I found peace with myself and who I am. I accepted that my physical inability would exclude me from certain activities; that people would continue to stare at me; and, at the end of the day, my body would be forced to work harder than most.

While I have come to terms with this, I would be lying if I said I felt emotionally impenetrable. At times, I am at odds with myself because it is hard to accept society's invalidation of people with disabilities. I was taken aback when a police officer questioned me as I asked for help to cross the street at a public event last spring. In order to get to my destination, I would have to maneuver my body through a barrier. Unfortunately my body does not allow me to move as I needed to, and when I requested assistance from the police officer and told him that I had a disability, he scoffed, smirked, and dubiously asked me to prove it. I was humiliated that I was forced to explain myself. He told me I should've adjusted my plan due to my disability and knowledge that the streets would be blocked off. Shaken and overcome by emotion, I walked as fast as I could across the street hoping that the police officer would notice my awkward gait and unstable hips.

Just a few months later, I parked in a handicap spot with my placard on the rear view mirror. I was greeted at my driver's side window by a parking official asking me whether it was me on my handicap placard. In a state of utter disbelief, I took down my placard, and said, "Yes sir. That's me on the placard. I have a disability." He went on to justify his questioning by telling me that people without disabilities often commit parking fraud. Again, I was horrified, especially because it is as though society has written a prescription for what it means to have a disability.

As a young person who continuously struggles with my identity, I find it tough to be fed different narratives of who I am supposed to be based on the way I look--visibly healthy and able-bodied, or who I am based on my body's physical composition. Because of this, I believe it is time to reshape what it means to be a person with a disability. When one discloses their disability, it should not be seen as immediately discrediting or exposing their definitive quality. People with disabilities are not always old, bedridden, and immobilized. I identify myself as a person with a physical disability; I may be partially paralyzed but it is a physical abnormality that affects the way I move my body. This trait does not discredit me or make me less of a human. It hasn't stopped me from driving a car, binge-watching Netflix, succeeding in my first year of college, or even jumping out of an airplane.

The journey to self-identification is one that never ends. Yes, I am proud to be different, but societal misconceptions do a number on my self-esteem. My physical abnormality does make me stand out in the tangible world, yet I am still a person who lives life like most nineteen-year-olds do. If you think about it, societal attitudes do more to disable me than my body does.