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I'm Not Ashamed to Call Myself Disabled

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Disabled?” my cousin exclaimed as I explained to her the word I use to describe myself and my brothers. I have many physically disabling conditions, and both my brothers are on the autism spectrum. I’ve been using the term “disabled” most of my life. For the first half, I was only explaining my brothers, but now I can include myself in that category too. My cousin, who has an adopted brother with Down syndrome, was expecting me to say that I described myself and my brothers as “special” or “unique.” She was looking for my euphemism for the term “disabled.”

I think it was something about the prefix of “dis-“ that made her view it as a negative word. But I fought long and hard to be called disabled. I’m disabled and proud. I never thought I’d say that. Especially growing up on the other side of being disabled, I thought I’d always view it as a defect. I’d always see it as something wrong with me, something that made me “less than.” But becoming disabled has given me a new perspective that I didn’t have when I was healthy. People feel bad for me now, they think (and say) “Poor Kelsey, if only she never got sick, if only she had better doctors, if only she had a better diet… things could be so different for her. She has such a brilliant mind, it’s such a shame to see it go to waste.”

Let me clarify, nothing has gone to waste. Maybe the years I spent resenting my chronic pain were a bit wasteful, sure. But I’m still here. The alternative was death. I fought off death at 21 and came out the other side. Sure, I did not come out unscathed. I am disabled now. Full-fledged physically and mentally disabled. I did not start out life this way, I had great potential. That potential has not gone to waste and neither have I just because I have a new label attached to my name. Sure, I’d love to be “Kelsey Heythere, Esq.” or “MD” but instead, I’m “Kelsey, disabled individual who still has plenty to offer,” and just because there’s no fancy acronym to note that doesn’t mean that’s not who I am.

Twelve years ago, I joined the ranks of my brave and fearless brothers. They were disabled before we knew what that word even meant. They were pioneers. They were not less than, there was nothing wrong with them. They were themselves in a world that wanted them to be something else. Today, I’m proud to join them and call myself disabled as well. If my cousin asks, I’ll remind her, the word is disabled, not unable.

Originally published: July 24, 2021
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