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I Am a Disabled Person, Not a Person With a Disability

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I was born with spina bifida. As a result, I am a full-time wheelchair user. These two sentences are often the first pieces of information that I use to introduce myself. For most of my life, I never thought much about having decided this was the first thing someone should know about me, but as an adult, I began to think more critically about why I felt I owed people this explanation.

In January 2017, I went back to school to earn my Education Specialist Credential and Master’s in Education. Many teachers, especially Special Education teachers, will tell you they always knew teaching was their calling. This was not the case for me. I had grown up having several jobs which involved working with kids, but when I got to college, I was actively trying to get away from that. You could say teaching runs in my family. Being a teacher was the thing that everyone in my life knew I was going to be, it just took me a little longer to realize it. So many of us are taught that we can grow up to be anything we want, but I had never had a teacher who looked like me, with any kind of visible disability, so I assumed teaching was something people like me just don’t do.

I decided to study Sociology, where I discovered a passion for activism, particularly within the populations I consider myself a part of. This was the first time in my life that I really connected to my identity as a woman. Prior to this, my identity as a disabled person had been all-consuming and I had been unable to see the intersection where the two most important identity groups to me met. I had never considered my place in the disabled community a choice. I had always assumed I was obligated to identify this way because my disability is visible. Upon graduating from college, I was no closer to choosing a career path than when I had started, but I felt a strong sense of who I was and had a grand notion that I wanted to help people like me.

After a few years of jumping back and forth between several temporary jobs that I felt no personal connection to or passion for, I did some soul searching and decided I needed to go back to the last thing I had done that made me happy: working with kids. I swallowed my pride and moved back to the small town where I grew up, and back into my parents’ house. I felt a profound sense of failure for doing this. I felt like I had failed at fitting in and being “normal,” failed at being an independent adult, and failed at overcoming my disability, which I grew up believing was the single most important thing I could do as a disabled person.

I applied for a job as a Special Education Paraprofessional in my local school district, the one I had grown up in. They were eager to have me and placed me at the elementary school I had gone to, working one on one with a first grade student. Many of my former teachers were still at the school, and although I found it somewhat challenging to overcome their perception of me as a student, rather than seeing me as a professional, I found it to be a largely supportive environment and I quickly grew to love to work. I recognized very quickly that this place had not changed much since I had been a student there. I have vivid memories of talking about diversity in school, but in this suburban, upper-middle class community, diversity is largely an abstract concept.

After a few months, I found myself applying to credential programs. I went to a few admissions interviews at schools in the area but couldn’t shake the feeling that I just hadn’t found my place yet. I reluctantly applied to the small private school across the street from my childhood home. A place most people have not heard of except that it happens to be the Alma Mater for a small handful of NBA players. I had spent so much time trying to get out of this place that the thought of being tied down here by school for a couple years was overwhelming. I had spent so much of my life feeling like I didn’t fit in this tiny little town that I couldn’t imagine myself fitting in at this tiny little college either.

This brings me to January 10, 2017. It was my second day of classes in the Education Specialist Credential program at the tiny little college in my tiny little town. I had just met everyone in my small cohort the day before, and we were going into our first class session of SPED 291: Intro to Inclusive Education. My little corner of the world isn’t exactly known for extreme weather, but on this particular day, we were in the middle of one of the worst storms we have experienced in quite a while.

We made it to class and began doing the usual things you do on the first day of any class: reading the syllabus, talking about expectations for the course, and giving personal introductions. When it came to my turn to introduce myself, I jokingly declared I had lived here my entire life, and I grew up so close to campus that we could hear the bells from the school’s chapel chime at the top of every hour. It hadn’t occurred to me to say anything else about myself. My disability did not feel like the most relevant thing to share with the group.

With introductions out of the way, our professor began his lecture. He informed us that we would be talking about disability labels and the eligibility categories for Special Education. I sat through the first half of his lecture feeling like the elephant in the room. I hadn’t explicitly acknowledged my disability, but everyone knew it was there. And there I was, sitting in a classroom being lectured by an able-bodied professor about my own community. In that moment, I was more self-conscious about my disability than I had been in a long time.

We took a short break about halfway through class, during which we all marveled at how hard it was raining outside. When we resumed the lecture, we began to talk about how we as teachers should talk about our students using “person-first” language. I immediately anticipated what was to follow, because I’ve heard it all before. “Person-first” language is designed to recognize the humanity of the person ahead of their disability. The idea that you should refer to someone as a “person with a disability” rather than calling them a “disabled person.” Seems harmless enough, right? To most people, this probably seems like an insignificant distinction.

I have always had an issue with this type of language, but for most of my life I was not able to articulate why it bothered me, I just knew it sounded contrived and disingenuous. My professor didn’t know that I had heard the essence of his lecture countless times before, and everything he said was probably new information to everyone else in the room. After a few minutes, I couldn’t contain myself any longer, so I hesitantly raised my hand. What happened next changed my perception of myself, this tiny little college in my tiny little town, and how I felt about the field of Special Education.

The first words that came out of my mouth were, “I recognize that person-first language is the accepted way to talk about disabilities, but I have never liked it, and I always make a point to tell people that I am a disabled person, not a person with a disability.” As if the universe was hearing my words and anticipating that no good could possibly come from my outburst, the power went out. Everyone collectively reached for their cell phones to turn on their flashlights. The shuffle lasted for a few minutes and I assumed that everyone would forget I had been talking and we would move on. No harm done. But to my surprise, everyone stared at me, waiting for me to finish my thought. It was at this point that my professor did what I now understand to be one of the bravest things one can do as a teacher: he relinquished control of his class to a student who was disagreeing with what he was trying to teach. This is what I said:

I am a disabled person, not a person with a disability because if I have to explicitly tell someone that I am a person, I have further dehumanized myself. I am not broken and there is nothing “wrong” with me. My disability is a natural aspect of human diversity. There is nothing inherent about my disability that limits me, because I am not limited by my own body. I am limited by the society I live in which chooses to see me as an “other.” I am disabled by people who choose to build stairs instead of ramps. I am disabled because someone chooses to hire a non-disabled person over me because they fear what they do not understand. To me, labeling myself as a disabled person as opposed to a person with a disability is empowering because it places the blame for my limitations where it belongs — on the people and the societal structures they create that limit me and those like me.

I went on for several minutes, and upon finishing my thoughts, I looked at my professor, who was completely dumbfounded and asked, “Does that make sense?” He said yes, thanked me for sharing and declared that this had been the weirdest first day of class he had ever taught, and sent us home early seeing as the power was showing no signs of coming back on.

As I was leaving class that night, I was still in shock about what had happened. I was shocked that I had been forward enough to lecture a room full of complete strangers about my opinion on a subject that was contrary to what was being taught, but mostly, I was shocked that I had been given the opportunity to do so. This was a pivotal moment for me on my journey to becoming a Special Education teacher. This was the moment I realized that I did fit in at this tiny little college in my tiny little town. These people had listened to me bare my soul, and instead of judging me, or telling me I was wrong, they had accepted me. They had recognized the importance of including me in a conversation about a community that I am a part of, and that they were outsiders to. But I had also recognized the importance of opening up to them and letting them in.

When I think about the responsibility I am about to take on in educating upcoming generations of disabled kids, I am often overwhelmed. How can I teach these kids, many of whom have very different disabilities from me, that we are a part of the same community? How can I teach them that “disabled” is not synonymous with “victim?” It is my hope that my students will grow up believing that being disabled and being proud of who they are, at every intersection of their identity, is not a contradiction.

My tiny little town has come a long way since I was a kid. They are about to finish construction of an all-access playground in the public park so future generations of disabled kids will have the opportunity to play alongside their able-bodied peers. The field of Special Education has evolved too. Disabled kids are no longer exclusively being relegated to “special” environments at school, and I see evidence of the stigma around Special Education that I grew up with beginning to subside. Inclusion is becoming the norm. To me, these are the effects of what can happen when we, the disabled community, elevate the discourse beyond the basic assumption that we are people. We are so much more than just human. By recognizing our allies, and having these sometimes uncomfortable conversations with them, we have the power to remove so many of the obstacles that hold us back. Today we are disabled, but tomorrow may tell a different story.

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Originally published: January 16, 2018
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