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5 Things I Have Learned as the Token Disabled Friend

Living with a disability in an abled world comes with a myriad of its own challenges. These can vary from issues with accessibility to doctors who think that they can tell you more about what you deal with on a day to day basis than you already know from actually living with it. But in my experience, the one thing you may never expect to have to navigate with such a high level of scrutiny is your social interactions – especially not with the people you consider your best friends. I was a very young teenager when I had this shocking realization thrust upon me, and these are just a few of the revelations that have come to me along the way.

1. Not all your friends are actually your friends.

In too many cases, especially as a teenage girl growing up in the early 2010s, I had the idea pushed on me that you are supposed to have this big group of friends who all love and support each other. That is almost never the case. In my experience, the girls who call themselves your best friends will often act nice enough to your face, but then you’ll catch the eye rolls whenever you mention something disability-related, or the sighs as you take a little too long to get up or down the stairs. These are the girls who are more than happy to leave you to lag behind in the street while shouting back at you to hurry up, or who get annoyed when you cannot run alongside them and end up missing the train that was one minute from departure when you were at the other side of the station paying way too much for coffee. These people are not your friends. That is not how your friends should ever act.

2. Those same girls will show you off like a doll, and that is not OK.

As long as you allow yourself to associate with girls like those above, you will always be stuck as the token disabled friend. That is you to them, whether you like it or not. That is your entire personality, and they love to drop it in to conversation any chance they get, especially when it makes them seem more interesting and “cultured.” They may also invade your privacy, especially if they think they’re helping you; they will touch, play with, and move your hair, or take your arm and physically move you to one side if they feel like you’re taking up too much space. Girls like these will insist their intrusiveness is to help you, when in reality I believe it is done to make them look and feel better about themselves. You are a person, not a Barbie doll, and they should not be getting that close to you unless you specifically ask them for help.

3. Your disability is going to make things awkward sometimes.

There is no getting around this one, especially for those of us who do not happen to be gifted in the coordination department. There will be multiple occasions where you fall flat on your face in a public setting (literally or symbolically), or accidentally skim a full plate of Chinese food across the room. If your friends treat you as a token, they may be embarrassed and have no idea to respond. But this is where having a solid set of friends is a good thing, and when you find yourself “accidentally” covering the woman who has been shooting dirty looks at your table all evening in tomato sauce, being the disabled friend in the group definitely has its advantages.

4. Your friends will take the piss out of you.

They absolutely will, as much as you probably don’t want to hear it. But by the time you’ve moved away from having an “ultra close” group of 15 of the bitchiest girls you’ve ever met in your life as your ‘best friends’ you’ve probably used to it. No. No, you’re not. With a decent set of friends behind you, they will never take the piss out of you in the way you’re thinking right now, the one that makes your heart sink and your stomach churn as they snicker and sneer about something that’s absolutely mortifying to you.

Your friends will take the piss out of you when you’re 21 years old and sitting in someone’s living room, three-quarters of the way through a bottle of cheap rosé wine, and all of a sudden you can stand up and walk in a straighter line than you can when you’re perfectly sober. They will bring up that time when you were 18 and it took 15 minutes and one of them physically removing the lighter from your hand and doing it for you to light your cigarette, because your fingers were a little cold. Or the time at 22 when it took you a solid two minutes to realize you’d put your shoes on the wrong feet, take them off, and put them back on the wrong feet, again.

They will bring up all of these things, and they will laugh. But they will never be laughing at you, they will always be laughing with you. They would never say anything just to make you feel bad about yourself, or as though you should hide your disability in any way. Around them you are free to be entirely yourself — just remember that they will definitely find a way to spin that time that you fell flat on your face into a mud puddle in front of the cute guy. But that is more than OK.

5. Your true friends will not care about your disability.

The last thing being the token disabled friend in multiple friendship groups has taught me is that the people who are genuinely your friends will not give a s*** about your disability. They honestly could not care any less if they tried. To them you are just you, you’re their friend, their support, and they enjoy your time and your company, quirks and all. One of the best things about navigating friendships as the token disabled friend is realizing that with the right set of friends behind you, you never have to be the token disabled friend – you are simply a friend.

Getty photo by Bowden Images.