Owning Up to My Reality: I’m Disabled, and I Always Will Be

I struggle with calling myself disabled. It’s much easier to write “I’m disabled” than it is to say it out loud. I use an endless list of euphemisms instead.

“I need to sit down.”

“I need extra time to board.”

“I’m just not feeling up to it.”

"It's going to be hard for me to make that walk."

I’m not sure I’ve ever said the words “I’m disabled.” I’ve had countless conversations about my need for reasonable accommodations, and my volatile health, but generally avoid claiming my status. 

Which is ridiculous. I've spoken at legislative hearings about the tremendous impact the illnesses that make me disabled have on my quality of life. I've given newspaper, radio and television interviews about the same. I write a blog about living with a disability! What is so hard about owning this key piece of my identity?

A friend asked me recently if I think I’m disabled. I replied that well, I’m disabled for purposes of the Americans with Disabilities Act. I’m willing to say as much because I know that all I’m copping to is the ADA’s definition of disability, that is, that I have a physical impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. I am not, however, “disabled enough,” for lack of a better phrase, to qualify for Social Security disability benefits as I am still able to work with minor accommodations.

This last point is one that’s important to me.There is an exaggerated (and cruel) perception that people fake their way into receiving disability benefits. Even though I know that this perception is false, I don’t want to be a victim of the stereotype. I don’t want anyone to assume that I’m not working or that I'm planning on not working. I hold on to these fine lines.  

Maybe I'm also holding on to some false hope that someday, I'll get better, even though I know that all signs point to me getting sicker with each passing year. 

Aside from my own very personal identity crisis, there's the additional pressure women in the law face to be, well, more masculine. Good lawyers are tough, strong and indefatigable. It's hard to get people to see women this way. Couple your femininity with a disability and you've got multiple mountains to climb.

I've at times let people believe that my injuries and my limitations are fleeting. 

When I was still practicing law, I spent about a month on crutches. Everyone knew I had a stress fracture, and even though it was absolutely related to my disability (I take medication that, among other things, has obliterated my bone density and made me more prone to fractures and breaks), it was treated like a sports injury. Something to be proud of. At my firm, everyone was either a jock or pretending to be a jock, so my stress fracture fit our image.

Practicing law while using a cane was another story—it wasn’t immediately clear why I was using a cane. I worried that it would make me appear vulnerable and weak in court. I took a deposition at a minimum security prison and worried that the cane made me a target. None of this was true. It was incredibly difficult to get around, but once again, people assumed I was simply on the path to recovery, instead of permanently disabled.

I needed a cane because I was going through a flare caused by my disability, and my hips were so weak and painful that I needed the extra support provided by a cane to walk. But everyone assumed it was something much less dramatic. Something that would be over soon.

I’ve used a cane on and off for the last seven years. I’ve consciously decided to smile and laugh more often when I use it. People react well to this behavior, even though it’s an act. Coupled with my semi-youthful appearance, smiling while using a cane has resulted in some men thinking this is reason enough to hit on me. They pepper me with questions about my recovery and tell me that I’m doing “great” and that I “look great” and that they’ll be seeing me again when I’m done with “that thing.”

Little do they know that nothing about me will change when “that thing,” the cane, is gone. I will still be me. I will still be . . . disabled. Maybe someday I'll have the courage to explain this in person. 

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