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How Choosing to Disclose My Disability Empowers Me to Live Authentically

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Self-disclosure has always been a hot topic in the disability community — especially for people who live with invisible disabilities like I do. While some of us don’t always have the choice of self-disclosing, those of us who do grapple with a personal, vulnerable, and challenging decision — sometimes on a daily basis! Self-disclosure shouldn’t be challenging or anxiety-inducing — we should all be free to be who we are without fear of discrimination or exclusion. 

However, this is not the case right now. Self-disclosure can result in a whole lot of trouble, and the process of self-disclosure can take a serious emotional toll. After I started working for NEADS, I realized the word “disabled” is right at the top of my resume. But while I only realized this after taking the job, it came more as a relief than as a regret. Having NEADS on my resume isn’t just a resume booster — it also provided me with an opportunity to “bite the bullet” when it comes to self-disclosure. Now, instead of navigating self-disclosure on a case-by-case basis, I choose to self-disclose as a default.

The decision to self-disclose my disability isn’t just because of my resume — it is because I have been really growing into my disabled identity and becoming proud of the disabled person I am. There can be absolute power when it comes to self-disclosure — power over your narrative, power over others’ perceptions, and power over the situation. Once I began to self-disclose by default, I never had to feel like I was hiding such an important part of my identity ever again. With self-disclosure, I am able to embrace my full, comprehensive disabled identity in ways I never could before.

As a queer, disabled woman, I’m going to take the opportunity to draw a parallel between self-disclosing disability and coming out of the closet. I realized I was bisexual around age 14, and I never once considered staying in the closet around my peers. I was proud of who I was, and I still am proud of who I am. When I was in the closet, primarily around my family or in work environments, though, I felt so uncomfortable. I was hiding a critical part of myself — my identity, my lived experience — from people I loved, people I saw every day, and people who had an undeniable impact on me. Every time I came out to someone new, I felt a little safer and a little bit more comfortable with who I was.

Choosing to self-disclose my disability by default is choosing to own my full identity unapologetically — in every space I occupy. While it was scary at first, it quickly became empowering. I recently started a co-op work term for the government, and I spoke about being disabled on my very first day without any real thought. Disclosing my disability has been so rewarding. I already feel so welcomed, so accepted, and so safe to be myself in this new work environment. Although the environment would have stayed the same regardless of my self-disclosure, it feels safer knowing I have nothing to hide.

Another perk of disability self-disclosure is the confidence boost it provides. Being open about my disability and my lived experience makes me the “disability expert” in any room I find myself in. As a small fish in a big pond, having that undeniable knowledge and skill is so comforting to me. This confidence boost is equally matched with a self-confidence boost – by self-disclosing, I’ve chosen to live out my full identity every single day. I’ve chosen to be unapologetically myself and to believe in my capabilities and choices.

Part of my self-disclosure has to do with disability pride. One of the reasons it can feel so hard or unsafe to self-disclose is that society is constantly advocating for your death — be it through MAID, accepting deteriorating health care and long-term care systems, or pullbacks on mask mandates. When society wants you dead, you might naturally want to keep your disability on the down-low. Therefore, when I choose to self-disclose — to go against these social norms, take pride in my identity, and be true to myself — it feels like an act of rebellion. It feels like an act of radical self-love. It also feels like an act of community: the more of us who self-disclose, the more of us there are working together to push back against these narratives and improve disability representation.

Self-disclosure is not for everyone, and it can be dangerous or even life-threatening. You can opt not to self-disclose and still be proud of who you are. You can choose not to publicly claim your disability and still be proud of it. You should do what you have to do to keep yourself safe. I know I speak from a place of privilege when I share the benefits of self-disclosure, and I know that as a white, middle-class woman, I will not be subject to the same discrimination many of my disabled peers face.

Disability self-disclosure has been freeing, empowering, and incredibly meaningful to me. It has allowed me to enter new professional spaces in my entirety. It brings me both confidence and self-confidence. It enables me to use my expertise to make spaces more accessible and inclusive, and it creates representation that may make my disabled peers feel safer. To go from hiding my identity and weighing the pros and cons of being my true self to owning my lived experience has been transformative and freeing.

While it’s always a personal choice to self-disclose, I ask that my disabled peers who are in a position to do so self-disclose. Non-disabled society often has no clue just how many of us are disabled, and once we self-disclose, we are better able to find each other and work together to create more accessible, inclusive, and diverse spaces. Together, we can make self-disclosure an asset and a source of pride — not a liability or a source of anxiety.

This story originally appeared on Carly Fox Disability Advocacy.
Getty image by VioletaStoimenova.

Originally published: May 22, 2022
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