Why Disability Pride Matters
Disabilities come in all shapes and sizes, and not all are obvious. According to the CDC, 61 million adults in America (26%) live with a disability. Furthermore, about 10% of Americans have a medical condition which would be considered an invisible (or non-apparent) disability. There are numerous conditions that are not visible to the naked eye. Examples of these are: Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), Diabetes, Fibromyalgia, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Epilepsy, and many more physical and psychiatric conditions.
Disability, visible or not, carries stigma, misinformation, and barriers. For people with disabilities who are too often deemed unable to “do” or “participate”, and too often shoved aside and viewed as burdensome, Disability Pride Month is an opportunity to promote visibility and awareness around the power and strength of people with disabilities.
Living With an Invisible Disability
As someone with a non-apparent disability, being visible means something very different than it might to another disabled individual. I have had many conversations with disabled peers, some with more obvious disabilities than others, about how we wish to be seen. I remember a conversation with a wheelchair user who told me she sometimes wished she had a disability people could not see (note, she did not say she wished to not be disable). She felt as though her wheelchair was always the first thing people saw; it took away from her interactions with the world. In contrast, I told her that I sometimes wished I had a more obvious disability.
Having a seizure disorder means I look like pretty much any other able-bodied person. The only times people know I am disabled are when they see me having a seizure. Even with a service dog at my side, people often confuse me for a trainer. But my disability goes beyond the seizures. It involves cognitive difficulties, fatigue, migraines, pain, as well as other co-existing conditions not visible to the naked eye. I hold no shame in having a disability, quite the opposite. But struggling to find my words on those days where the brain fog is at its worst and having to stumble around to create a decent sentence is embarrassing. I may feel dizzy and have balance issues up to two days after a seizure. I have felt the annoyance from people walking behind me in a rush, trying to get by. If I felt “seen” as a disabled person, maybe I wouldn’t feel the need to apologize so profusely or try to explain that “No, I am not being lazy, but going on that fun excursion right now would be painful and exhausting for me.”
"I Don't Think of You as Disabled"
Beyond this, living with an invisible disability can mean that people do not view me as disabled. And in that way, they deny a core piece of my identity. When even my closest friend or relative tells me that they don’t think of me as disabled, I know they mean well. They see me as an independent woman, with a job, who gets around with ease, has a social life, and who happens to have seizures and needs extra rest from time to time. But what they are really demonstrating is that they still view disability as “less than” the rest of society. In this way, “I don’t see you as disabled” strips people with disabilities of their unique experiences and identity; no matter the disability, no matter how visible. For many non-disabled folk, disability is associated with powerlessness and shame. In contrast, for us, disability can mean strength, power, and, yes, pride!
Disabled and Proud
My disability is not always easy to live with. Sometimes I even hate it. I wish I could just go anywhere spontaneously and not worry whether there were going to be loud sounds, flashing lights, or too much stimulation for my nervous system to manage. I wish I didn’t cancel plans as often as I do, and I wish I could plan with more ease. But I can’t. And that’s okay. I’ve learned to adapt and cope. My experiences with my disability have only made me stronger and better. I am part of an amazing, diverse, and resilient community of people from all walks of life. Our ability to adapt and manage challenges is what makes us unique and stronger than most.
I have learned a great deal about myself and the world thanks to my disability, and I have accomplished a lot as well. Without it, I would not have my four-legged “partner in crime”, and I would not have the passion for helping others that I do today. There is power in living with a chronic illness or disability, and I will always strive for that power to shine bright.
Whether you see it or not, I am disabled, and I am proud. Never tell me otherwise.
Atlas Supports Disability Pride
Atlas Assistance Dogs believes that disabilities are part of someone’s story. They are not something to hide or run away from. We see incredible resilience and strength in our clients and in many of our volunteers, who themselves have disabilities, and we firmly believe that a service dog can empower and enable someone to thrive, not despite, but rather WITH their disability.
About Atlas Assistance Dogs
Atlas Assistance Dogs is a non-profit organization that strives to help eliminate obstacles and help anyone who wants a service dog and who qualifies under the Americans with Disabilities Act to obtain a certified assistance dog.
We work with people with a wide range of disabilities who wish to train their own service dog and offer a comprehensive Academy for professional trainers wanting to become service dog trainers.
Author: Molly Neher
Header design created by Molly Neher