I am disabled. But it’s taken years for me to accept it.
I have come to realise that a lot of my hesitance to accept the term “disabled” for myself came from internalised ableism that I didn’t know was there. I had this concept of what being disabled meant, and in the last couple of years, I’ve recognised that I’ve been woefully misinformed for most of my life.
I wouldn’t say that I had a stereotypical image in mind of what “a disabled person” looked like. I knew that disability didn’t just mean someone with a physical disability. I knew that there were all sorts of disabilities and disabled people aren’t one homogeneous group with the exact same experiences.
However, I think in my mind I had this underlying thought, that went something like “yeah I have X, but I can do Y, so I’m not disabled”, or “my Z isn’t that bad, so I don’t count it as a disability”.
I think I believed that accepting the term “disabled” meant that I was admitting fault with myself – like somehow claiming the word disability to describe my issues/symptoms/conditions (or whatever more palatable term I was using) would mean that those issues (etc) would forever be barriers to me living a “normal” life.
I was recently asked what I think my barriers are for things like work, training, study, socialising, and so on. I reeled off the list: I have BPD, I have depression, I have anxiety, I have some mobility issues, I have a chronic physical illness…
Shortly afterwards, I was aimlessly browsing the internet and I came across something that made me stop in my tracks. I really wish I had saved it at the time, because I can’t for the life of me remember where I saw it.
But, the gist of it was:
Barriers are the lack of accessibility, not the disability itself.
Being a wheelchair-user is not a barrier. The lack of ramps or platforms is a barrier.
Being blind is not a barrier. The lack of braille or audio options is a barrier.
Being agoraphobic is not the barrier. The lack of flexibility for remote work is a barrier.
Having a learning disability is not the barrier. Rigid teaching styles and the lack of alternatives to traditional testing methods are barriers.
The disability is not the problem. Disabled people are not the problem.
The problem is that making shops and schools and workplaces and public transport and homes and just about anywhere truly accessible tends to come as an afterthought – if the thought comes at all.
And what’s more, disabled people are expected to bend over backwards in gratitude for the bare minimum level of accessibility. We’re supposed to believe we’ve been bestowed a great favour; a benevolent gift that they didn’t have to do, because we are somehow less deserving than our abled counterparts.
I felt it was important to talk about this topic, because it was so incredibly liberating for me to realise that the barriers are external rather than internal. The fact that certain things are inaccessible to me (either right now, or at all) is not some personal fault or failing, and it’s not something to be ashamed of. The shame lies with the people who exclude people from accessing places and things that abled people don’t have to think twice about.
I know it’s a sweeping statement, but unfortunately our world in general operates on the principle that if you can’t access it, it’s your problem. But please, please know that it’s not.
And despite the fact that disabled people shouldn’t still have to fight so hard for basic rights, please know that there are some amazing disability advocates, activists, and organisations who fight tirelessly to bring about change. They also explain things like this much better than I have here. My frustrated ramble barely scratches the surface of the issue(s) surrounding disability and accessibility.
If you would like to learn more on this subject (and related issues), here are a few resources you might find useful:
- Disability Rights UK
- World Health Organization: Disability
- Scope: Disability Equality Charity
- Enhance the UK: Changing Society’s Views on Disability
- Gov.uk: Disability Rights
If you have any more resources or you would like to highlight a particular disability activist or campaign, please feel free to share them in the comments.
I’d also love to hear your thoughts on this topic and if you have experienced barriers due to lack of accessibility. What do you think needs to change?