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Mental Illness Is a Disability, and That’s OK

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When I was younger, every time I heard the word “disabled,” I would picture someone who was in a wheelchair. When I became more involved in the disability community the definition of disabled changed. I realized that the word “disabled” incorporated many conditions that were visible and invisible. Today I want to go further than just invisible physical disabilities.

I’ve noticed that not many people talk about mental illnesses becoming a disability. Mental illnesses are considered invisible. You can not see if someone has an anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, PTSD, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, major depressive disorders, and many other mental illnesses. When you have an invisible disability it can be hard for people to take your condition seriously. Many mental illnesses can dramatically affect how someone functions in the world.

Throughout my life, I’ve dealt with depression, OCD, eating disorders, and PTSD. My mental illnesses can sometimes affect my work and limit my activities. When I was in college my OCD impacted my driving ability, it made me consistently late, and it affected my relationships. My PTSD can stop me in my tracks. Flashbacks can hold me hostage. My mental illnesses are a disability. They make me disabled and that’s OK to say. Using the word disabled to explain how my mental state affects me can be very helpful when describing to others what I go through.

So what defines being disabled?

The dictionary definition of a disability is:
1) A physical or mental condition that limits a person’s movements, senses, or activities.
2) A disadvantage or handicap, especially one imposed or recognized by the law.

Stop gatekeeping the word disabled.

The disabled identity can be extremely important when learning how to accept your limitations. Those with a mental illness need to be able to identify with the word disabled. We have to be careful when gatekeeping the word disabled. The word disabled doesn’t mean that someone is unable to work due to a disability. It also doesn’t mean that you have to have a physical disability. Many disabilities are invisible, including mental illnesses.

You can still be disabled even if you don’t receive disability payments from the government. 

The keywords in the definition of disability are that a disability can be “a physical or mental condition.”  While part of the definition suggests that a disability can be recognized by the law such as receiving disability pay, that doesn’t mean that if you do not receive disability from the government, you are not disabled. Certain mental illnesses fall under this category, as they can be debilitating and can significantly affect someone’s life. While some people who have a disability rely on government aid due to not being able to work, not all disabled individuals are on disability aid. Many are still able to work but their mental condition limits them. Mental illnesses can affect relationships both romantically and socially, such as an anxiety disorder that prevents someone from being able to socialize and causes severe stress.

Since I’ve started referring to my mental illnesses as a disability, it has helped me give words to what I go through and how my mental illnesses can be disabling. I can explain to others why I’m having a hard day. I can ask for accommodations if needed. Claiming the word “disabled” empowers me.

Getty image by Elena Medvedeva.

Originally published: May 31, 2022
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