December 3rd is the International Day of People with Disabilities.
I have never experienced life without a disability. I was born with cerebral palsy, which in my case affects the right side of my body. This means delayed motor skills, reaction times, restricted mobility, and walking with a visible limp.
Cerebral palsy is and looks different for every person and body. In my case, I don’t use full-time mobility aids, but I do use them in certain situations, e.g. For example, at airports where I ask for wheelchair assistance from gate to gate because walking long distances is terrible for my legs.
In a society that knows very little about the exact reality of disability, people make harmful assumptions. People who are not part of the disabled community believe that our lives are only measured by their belief that we are missing out. Often times I find that the negative reactions people have to my disability are a projection of their fear of disability, influenced by falsehoods or exaggerations in the media.
The truth is that many people live with disabilities. The CDC reports that there are 61 million adults with disabilities in America alone. This figure excludes children and only includes those who have chosen to disclose their disability. Because of the stigma behind disability, many don’t. So the number should be even higher.
The longest – actually too long – I didn’t celebrate International Day of People with Disabilities. I didn’t celebrate because I was ashamed to have at least a physical handicap. I was comfortable with my anxiety and seasonal depression long before I was ever comfortable with a disability. There was a time when I thought I was going to die in disgust for myself.
My shame was rooted in the stigma I mentioned. We treat the otherness of a disability as if it were inherently wrong, provided that the discomfort people experience means that the otherness itself is inherently bad or evil.
The cryptic portrayal of disability in popular culture (as in the movie Me Before You) obscures the wealth and abundance of disabilities. Growing up as a kid in the 1990s meant growing up with exploitative telethons as my only means of representing disabilities. I remember passing them on on TV feeling like I wanted to cry and disappear when I saw people like me being belittled and our voices stripped for money. (The intentions were good, but the execution was harmful.)
When your self-reflections are on media where these self-portraits are harmful, it is easy to internalize this as evidence that you don’t and never will. I chose these ideas because I didn’t know anything else. In retrospect, I have had family and friends who love me and look after me. As a kid, teenager, and young college-aged adult, I dismissed them as thoughts of people who needed to love me, not people who will of their own free will. I only realized that the love I received was of free will when I began to see for myself that I was and am worthy of love.
In 2016, my idea of me changed drastically. This change seemed to happen slowly and all at once. My story is about reluctance. I didn’t want to love myself. Self-hatred and doubt were easy, familiar, and comfortable. I had got used to not liking everything about myself – that was the part of my brain that wanted things to stay the same. I read somewhere that nobody can hurt us the way we can hurt ourselves.
I was a scholar of my own pain, at the head of the class. There was a time when I believed I was protecting myself and preparing for war against dissolving enemies. In reality, I was just waging a war on the mirror image. I thought this would be my lived reality forever.
But the year had other plans. It was weird to have a personal breakthrough in the same year the world fell apart – when Trump was elected and we saw more black and brown people being killed on camera by the police for no real consequences – but I did it. 2016 was the year my professional and personal life changed. I started getting featured in dream publications like Harper’s Bazaar and Teen Vogue. More importantly, I got tired, tired of breaking myself into tiny, angry, insecure pieces and leading a life where I kept hurting myself.
That exhaustion was what sparked my breakthrough in self-love, and when I write these words four years later on a day I refused to celebrate, I have to say that I wish I could have come here sooner. I can’t go back, of course, but I’m happy to be here now. I’m glad to know the other side of my own deep self-loathing. The other side is deep acceptance on good and bad days. I wake up every morning to find basic acceptance during the cloudy water days in the middle.
I want to make it clear that I am not perfect and neither is my life. I still have bad moments, weeks and months. I’m in therapy and working on myself, working on a more absolute state of peace over the things I can’t change and the nagging voice in my head that sometimes finds my spare key and lets itself in.
I know how cheesy this is going to sound, but listen to me. Now I try to live every day as if it were International Day of People with Disabilities. I seek and am open to learning new things about my body and I no longer apologize for the accommodations I need and deserve, the space I occupy or the way I look.
If someone doesn’t like me because my fingers keep bending, do I hobble and wear my disability with pride? It’s up to them, not me.