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When People Say I'm Doing Great 'for Someone With a Disability'

Austin Wykes - young man in a blue shirt with a view of a lake behind him.

Growing up with cerebral palsy, I encountered two distinct perceptions of “disability” from others on occasion. First is that merely existing somehow made me heroic, and second, any effort I make is a great one because I made it. As you might imagine, these perceptions can grow tiresome, because I’m just trying to live my life like anyone else. After a while, the aggressive encouragement is, in a strange way, grinding on the spirit. At times it felt and still can feel disingenuous. Such unearned praise made me feel like there was a lack of “real” expectation for my life, and that participating was considered to be enough.

To be sure, cerebral palsy affects many aspects of my life and has provided many speed-bumps while trying to accomplish various goals. However, the only times I’ve felt “disabled” are when people have gone out of their way to either include or pressure me into activities that I genuinely had little interest in, or indirectly emphasized how disabled I seem to them, because I surpassed their expectations. The latter usually occurs due to a misplaced kindness mixed with ignorance. People say things like, “You’re doing a great job for someone with that disability!” or “How do you do it?” Both examples are mildly insulting, and also, incredibly common. While they’re trying to be encouraging, they’re also pointing out a difference I’m already well aware of, that has no bearing on the task at hand. It doesn’t make me mad, but it is frustrating because I’m just trying to do my thing. Imagine someone mentioning your race or gender while you’re doing something you view as mundane. That’s how it feels to me.

As far as my disability is concerned, I don’t view it as some sort of “active” status. I have a disability, but I’m not existing in disability. I live in the same world as everyone without a disability, and to me my disability is a part of me in much the same way that glasses are for someone who needs them. You’re not always able to see things as clearly as other people, but it really bears no impact on how you go about living your life. But if you were constantly being reminded that you wore glasses, you would begin to feel different even when glasses were irrelevant. Constantly acknowledging a difference, even if from the heart, can be more divisive than the difference itself, I’ve found. It only reinforces the separation and mutual isolation of both groups from each other.

I believe that although it might be difficult, the best thing you can do for someone with a disability is let them be themselves. Trying to force an idea of “normalcy” that doesn’t fit, or highlighting how they surpassed your low expectations can be far more damaging to their confidence and self-worth than any disability.

The Mighty is asking the following: What’s one thing people might not know about your experience with disability, disease or mental illness, and what would you say to teach them? If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.