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Why I Chose to Give Up My Disability 'Passing Privilege'

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I pass. To many, I am just another woman, living a life unencumbered by the weight of a minority identity.  I appear white, tall, slender, middle-class and able-bodied. My body itself obscures the truth behind my relative privilege.

I am a woman with a disability.

Statistically, I am more prone to experiencing employment discrimination and acts of violence than those in the able-bodied population. I have experienced ableist microaggressions, from the widespread belief that I can’t possibly have cerebral palsy because I’m not “disabled enough” to medical professionals reacting to my diagnosis with pity.  But for years, no one knew about the challenges inherent in my disability identity because I took advantage of my “passing privilege,” my ability to conceal my disability.

I can walk without a pronounced limp, use both hands, and speak clearly. In the wake of my adolescent shame over living with a disability, the only solution seemed to be to live in profound denial of my disability, to use my ability to “pass” as able-bodied to hide my true identity. For nine years I refused to speak about my medical condition, deflected conversations that veered dangerously close to revealing my well-kept secret, and brushed off cerebral palsy symptoms — tremors, clumsiness and physical pain — with lighthearted jokes. I had internalized so much ableism that I vehemently believed revealing my disability, giving up my “passing privilege,” would lose me friends, respect, and the opportunities able-bodied people seemed to earn so effortlessly.

As I slowly became aware that my ability to hide my disability was a widely coveted symbol of my privilege, I became wracked with guilt over my decision to conceal my cerebral palsy. I knew that so many others with my disability are unable to hide their symptoms, leaving them prone to prejudice, discrimination, and ableism. Some are routinely unable to access buildings I can enter with ease. Some are refused employment on the basis of disability alone. Some are presumed to be incompetent, even as they reveal their gifts and talents. I saw that as others with cerebral palsy were constantly being mistreated by a society that refused to accept them as they are, I was being praised — while fervently distancing myself from the disability community by hiding my cerebral palsy.

I was painfully aware that my decision to hide my cerebral palsy harmed the very community that welcomed me with open arms. But I was terrified of the potential consequence of giving up my “passing privilege,” of opening up my life to the prospect of discrimination and ableism. Retaining my privilege by continuing to hide seemed selfish to me, but I feared it was my only chance to live in a way that preserved my humanity.

I had done nothing to merit my passing privilege. I simply existed in a body that, while disabled, appeared able-bodied. How was it fair that I was virtually exempt from the consequences of living with a disability when my peers with more visible cerebral palsy battled for equal treatment every day?  The simple answer was that my “passing privilege” was completely unfair. As scared as I was of the potential repercussions, it was time for me to let go of my privilege.

I started writing, spilling my thoughts on the predicament of being disabled but not seeming “disabled enough.” I discussed my “passing privilege,” acknowledging its existence, but also exposing the unintended consequences it created.  I feared that others would misinterpret my commentary on the challenges inherent in my decision to conceal my disability as disrespectful to those who did not have the same option.  But I ultimately strove to reveal the aspect of my identity I had long attempted to hide from the world, and in doing so, give up my “passing privilege.”

When I first opened up about my disability online, I was keenly aware that I was risking the comfort of “passing” as able-bodied for a future potentially laden with ableism from the world around me. But I believed with every fiber of my being that I should stand on equal ground with the rest of the disability community, even if that meant experiencing ableism alongside others with cerebral palsy.

In some respects, despite continually acknowledging my disability in an extremely visible way, I still retain privilege.  I am fortunate that my family and friends are supportive of my decision to openly write about disability and that my vulnerability in discussing my disability identity has not affected my current job. Strangers on the street still can’t tell I have cerebral palsy, so I am not met with the stares and invasive questions many people with disabilities face in public settings. Still, the distinct possibility exists that I could face some of the same acts of ableism people with visible disabilities experience on a daily basis.

With a quick Internet search, acquaintances, colleagues and prospective employers alike can now discover I have cerebral palsy and possibly judge my abilities and competence even prior to meeting me. While the prospect of experiencing disability discrimination leaves a bitter taste in my mouth, I remain confident in my decision to give up my “passing privilege,” and in doing so, to begin to foster equality within the disability community.

Occasionally people with visible disabilities will ask me the most difficult question: Why would you give up your ability to hide your disability?  I constantly contemplate giving a simple answer. “Hiding my disability caused me too much anxiety. It just felt like the right time. It wasn’t right that my friends didn’t know.” But I always strive to be honest, to expose the inequity “passing privilege” breeds within the disability community. With a deep breath, I finally answer. “I revealed my disability because I felt retaining my passing privilege ultimately hurt the disability community. I revealed my disability because I shouldn’t be exempt from any of the challenges our community faces. I revealed my disability because I stand in solidarity with you.”

Getty image by SanneBerg.

Originally published: May 29, 2018
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