Why You Shouldn't Pity Disability

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I smelled my steaming cup of Starbucks coffee, the warmth of the drink driving away the chill I felt in the brisk Charlotte air. My dog, assuming his place of authority in my lap, interrupted our chatter with a string of startling barks. A woman I had never seen before was headed for our table.

"Is this your daughter?" the stranger asked my mother in a cautious tone. "I would like to add her to my prayer list."

Having experienced this before and knowing the requisite response, we nodded, smiled and thanked her for her kindness and generosity.

She placed her hand gently on my shoulder as she began to recite, quite conspicuously, a short prayer about me and my health. She looked at us with a smile as she walked away - a glint of pride in her eyes - while I, blushing with embarrassment, died a little inside.

I know this encounter made her feel better. I know she meant well. I know there is power in prayer. But, it made me feel horrible. I was having a wonderful, dare I say normal, day out with my family, enjoying the autumn breeze, laughing away the day. No matter how happy I feel, the rest of the world will always see my wheelchair before they see my heart. They will see my motionless hands and legs before they feel my strength. They will hear my broken voice before they hear the personality, charm, and intellect in my words. No matter how well meaning her intentions, it was a harsh reminder that no matter how "normal" I felt, people would always see me as abnormal - a girl in desperate need of a better life.

We live in a society where, unfortunately, a person with disabilities is made to feel less. Limited by our physical capabilities, limited by the lack of accessibility in much of the community, limited by our aesthetically displeasing wheelchairs, and limited by the pity-ridden stares that tend to stalk us everywhere we go, our injuries not only break our bodies, but they break our spirits too. Naturally, it becomes a common expectation for us to overcome our adversity - adversity that is our wheelchairs. For the longest time, I've believed that since my body was normal before, my life couldn't go on until my body was back to normal.

I keep telling myself, "I'll go back to school, when I get better." "I'll go out with my friends, when I get better." "I'll wear this dress and those heels, when I get better." It's been nine years - nine years of focusing on rehabilitation and putting off my career, nine years of being a pseudo-recluse and putting off my social life, nine years of clothes that I loved sitting idly in my overflowing closet. It's been nine years, and I'm still not "better," not even close. While I've tried to hit pause on every aspect of my life until my body catches up to my mind, time has no patience. I woke up one morning and realized I had completely missed out on my 20s and was no closer to my goals than I had been right after my stroke. Life is swiftly and unapologetically passing me by with no regard to my desires.

I feel like I'm stuck, standing still, stuck between reminisces of my past and daydreams of my future while totally missing out on my present. I feel like I can maybe let go of the past, not for lack of trying, but time has a funny way of fogging up memories that once felt so real. I'm starting to forget who I once was, which is a real shame, because I think she was truly loved by so many - must have been one hell of a chick. On the other hand, it's kind of nice that my obsession with my former life is slowly slipping away because maybe I will finally be able to focus on who I am now. But every time I muster the courage to press play on my life again, to start pursuing other dreams and loosening the reigns on my all-consuming, fervent, near inescapable desire to get better, a stranger at a coffee shop or a humiliation in the community reignites my desperate desire for a better tomorrow while destroying my confidence in the person I am today.

While I take full responsibility for my inability to thrive in this new body and new life, the stigma surrounding disability has skewed my perception of my own disability. The unhealthy amount of pressure I feel to overcome my adversity and escape my disability is not just self inflicted. I know I'm stubborn about what I want my life to look like. I know I'm wildly insecure about my disabilities and dependencies. I know I lack creativity in trying to adapt my former dreams to my new circumstances. But, society hasn't helped, not one bit. Do I hate my current life so much because of my expectations or because of society’s distaste and pity for disability? I think my self-image is merely a reflection of how society sees me. Broken. Weak. Less. The pity emanating from society can be a self-fulfilling prophesy, an a strangling disease that threatens to stomp out every last vestige of self-worth. Pity stifles growth and creativity, leaving me paralyzed in a whole new kind of locked-in syndrome.

I don't want to be that weak or that vulnerable to be so deeply affected by the arguably ignorant thoughts and words of others. But when my entire self-image was blown to pieces and a new confidence was expected to rise out of that void, my feelings were bound to be easily manipulated by the world around me.

Everyone, including myself, is focused on the physical aspect of overcoming my adversity. But maybe that's supposed to be more of a metaphor and the real challenge is to mentally overcome my adversity. Now that, my friends, is easier said than done. But maybe, if society could see me as "enough," I could finally see myself, who I am right now at this very moment, as enough.