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When People Say, 'I Don’t See You as Disabled'

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“I don’t see you as disabled.”

The comment seems innocent enough, right? Maybe even a compliment. It’s meant to let someone know we aren’t focused on their apparent difference and want to assure them that we don’t see them “that way” — as something less than or as part of the stereotype.

As I have become more vocal about my own limb difference, my disability, over the past few years, I have had several people say to me directly, “oh, I don’t see you like that; you’re not really disabled,” as though they are doing me a favor by not including me in “that” group. But, I do have a disability (as a matter of fact, 1 in 4 adult Americans do; we are the largest minority group), and it took me a long time to accept that part of myself, over half my life. So, I am not insulted to be part of “that group” — I actually have a sense of belonging now that I spent years without.

And yet, I am left to wonder why we do this to groups who have been marginalized — why do we other each other? Perhaps, it’s because we don’t want to label someone who doesn’t match our definition of “that” group. We tell ourselves, you are different from the stereotypes I have learned. Your difference doesn’t compute with what I have been told about that group, so it causes dissonance forcing me to say you aren’t “that.” In fact, I believe I’m doing you a favor; you don’t have to be “that.” And, if we assume the best intention, it’s meant to be a compliment.

Unfortunately, that’s not how many of us take it; it’s not how I take it anymore. I hear that I shouldn’t want to be part of that group because I am better than that. And, that part of my identity isn’t important because it’s uncomfortable for you and what you believe to be true about that group. My difference doesn’t matter. My story and my struggles don’t matter. My lived experience doesn’t matter. It is another way of forcing me to hide, hold shame, and cover that part of myself by not acknowledging my difference and all that goes with it. This “compliment” is not so innocent; it’s actually hurtful.

Maybe we need to start by expanding the word disability. I am proud of my disability. To me, disability means being part of something rather than feeling isolated, alienated, and alone. It’s my version of “The Ugly Duckling” fairytale finding my swans — belonging, acceptance, and connection. To me, disability means strength and fortitude, even when things are tough. Disability means overcoming challenges and creatively thinking outside the box for solutions. Disability means owning a piece of myself and recognizing that it’s not all of me. I wear my disability like a badge of honor now. Yes, I have a physical disability.

Just as I had to get comfortable and change the definition of disability in my head as something that has strength, that has ability, that has voice, I ask you to help me change the language around disability.

Rather than not seeing me “that way,” I ask you to:

Acknowledge my difference but don’t treat me as different.

Appreciate my lived experience and be curious about it when I share.

Understand that I may need accommodation or support, not as a weakness, but as a strength. Also, realize that it can be challenging for me to ask for the support.

Help me reset the definition of disability by recognizing its strengths and realizing that disability itself is multifaceted — it can be visible and invisible.

I own my disability. I own my difference. I am part of this diverse world.

This story originally appeared on Thrive Global.

Originally published: October 4, 2021
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