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We Need to Stop Pitting Mental Illness and Physical Disability Against Each Other

“We need to make getting mental illness accommodations as easy as getting physical disability accommodations.”

The first time I heard this, I was at a roundtable consultation and was in complete shock. I had never heard this before, and immediately saw it as divisive and negative rhetoric pitting physical disabilities against mental illnesses. The second time I heard this, I was providing strategic advice at a consultation. My face immediately hinted at my disbelief (as it always does) and the facilitator asked me to speak on it – which I did, respectfully and hesitantly. The third time I heard this, I was a participant at the Global Youth Disability Summit. When I shared how this was harmful rhetoric, a non-disabled person tried to tell me that my interpretation, as a disabled person, of what the speaker said was wrong. I replied, “I maintain my position, my interpretation, and my lived experience, but thank you for sharing your perspective!”

This comment is becoming more and more common as disability rights begin to enter conversations of equity and inclusion and the mental health crisis continues to rage on. While both of these issues deserve to be centered in mainstream discussions, the issue is that it is pushing us in the wrong direction. This comment implies that physical disabilities are easy to accommodate and that mental health and physical disabilities are two completely separate experiences. As a disabled, mentally ill person – I believe this could not be more wrong.

Reality Check

Simply put, it is hell to get accommodations for physical disabilities.

First, we have to receive a formal medical diagnosis – a significant barrier to those facing systemic oppression on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, class, you name it!

Then, we need to get our physician(s) to sign off on paperwork requesting accommodations – and when you only see your specialist(s) every few months, your accommodations can be severely delayed. After that, you have to get in touch with your landlord, employer, or on-campus disability service provider, or as I like to call them: on-campus disability service denier.

From there, you’ll set up an intake meeting where you discuss what accommodations you would like to receive in your classes, assignments, and exams. At my university, we have to opt-in to our accommodations in all of our classes and for all of our exams. This is made more difficult by terribly designed websites and short opt-in periods – and if you miss your period, you miss out on your accommodations.

Finally, you often have to self-advocate for your accommodations before ignorant and/or ableist professors, who might accuse you of being lazy, faking your disability, taking advantage of accommodations, you name it! If you are fortunate enough to have professors upholding their legal and contractual requirements to reasonably accommodate you, you can skip the step where you contact your student union’s legal or advocacy resource as you fight for your basic accommodations.

Easy enough, right?

I will allow that many people promoting this rhetoric misunderstand the reality of getting accommodations for physical disabilities. For some reason, they always believe the only physical disability out there is having a broken leg, and that accommodations are limited to elevators and accessible ramps. I will allow for the fact that a misunderstanding is occurring, but I will also hold these people accountable for using my lived experience as some sort of bargaining chip-slam dunk on inaccessible systems, instead of recognizing it as the valid and consequential lived experience of their disabled peers.

Attitude Check

When I hear the comment as a mentally ill, physically disabled person, I get the vibe that these people believe that people with physical disabilities are less subject to ableism, discrimination, and stigma, and have no mental illnesses themselves.

As someone with an invisible disability that has used mobility aids, I’d like to take a second to recognize able-passing privilege, where you are mainly able to go about your day without being subject to discrimination on the basis of disability. Don’t get me wrong, mental illnesses can definitely face discrimination and stigma, especially when they have physical manifestations. But there is an undeniable privilege in being able to play yourself off as non-disabled and avoid some unpleasant interactions.

Going back to the broken leg example, the comment implies that physical disabilities are easy to understand and face little stigma. After all, a broken leg is a broken leg – it usually doesn’t get worse, it’s usually temporary, and no one blames you for breaking your leg. But summarizing the physical disability experience into a broken leg is incredibly problematic! Physical disabilities are incredibly diverse and manifest in many different ways. Speaking as someone with a chronic, episodic physical disability – how my disability presents itself and the accommodations I need vary day to day. Compared to a broken leg, that’s much harder to understand!

The broken leg monolith also implies that accommodations for physical disabilities only include elevators and accessible ramps. Not only is this wildly incorrect, it constrains the expansion of new accommodations! At my current school, I’ve been offered a laptop, extra time, and word processing for my hand dexterity issues, and ergonomic chairs, height-adjusted desks, barrier-free classrooms, and close-proximity classes for my mobility issues! If we only consider elevators and accessible ramps as physical disability accommodations, we deny so many people the basic tools they need to succeed.

Check-In

Aside from dismissing the barriers, discrimination, and stigma faced by persons with physical disabilities, the comment ignores the intersection between mental illness and physical disability. The two are mutually reinforcing: poor mental health worsens symptoms of physical disabilities, and unaccommodated physical disabilities can worsen mental health. People with physical disabilities are twice as likely to have mental illnesses than their non-disabled peers, and ignoring this fact ignores how much the two “categories” have in common.

We are all subject to systemic ableism, stigma, and discrimination. We are all being denied our legally guaranteed right to reasonable accommodation, and our right to equal access to education and employment on the same basis as our non-disabled peers. Many of us are both physically disabled and mentally ill!

One last nuance before we wrap up: it is hard to get diagnoses and accommodations for mental illness. I would never deny that. I have jumped through those hoops and over those hurdles. Mental illnesses are subject to different types of medical diagnoses, procedures, and treatments. They face different types of barriers, discrimination, and stigma. They require different accommodations than physical disabilities. They definitely face misunderstandings and misconceptions about their nature and manifestations. I think we can all agree on that.

But we should also all be able to agree that furthering the misconceptions and stigma towards other types of disabilities is a futile and undermining attempt to better our respective rights. Why are we trying to tear each other down when we can work together? If you want to play oppression Olympics and vie for that gold medal, I can’t stop you. But when you realize that the medals are only awarded to weigh you down, you’ll know where to find me.

Learn more about the author at Carly Fox Disability Advocacy.

Getty image by Jeff Foott.

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