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How Peer Support Has Helped Me Accept My Disability

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Entering a university of over 30,000 students I didn’t know was scary. Living with a mental illness made the experience even more overwhelming. I felt alone.

I remember lying constantly about why I disappeared for days at a time, where I was when I was attending appointments, and why I didn’t write my tests and exams with the rest of the class. The only people I ever talked to about my mental health were healthcare providers and other professionals at my university. Talking to about professionals who work for the institutions that I interact with was useful in a lot of ways, but when I was frustrated with systemic barriers and institutions, talking to people who work for those institutions was not so helpful.

In my second year, I learned about a new peer support service for students with disabilities and decided to volunteer. I wanted to get involved in school and meet some new people. I also though this idea of peer support was intriguing. There is empirical evidence for the benefits of peer support on mental health, which has lead to a push for the inclusion of more peer support services, especially those that have a focus on disability.

The basis of the service I began working at was to offer students with disabilities a hub for peer support. A physical space was intended for support but also a place to develop community, compile resources and organize advocacy efforts. The defining feature was that it was not run by professionals, but by other students with lived experience in the realm of disability.

I didn’t identify my own experiences with the term “disability” or use the word to describe myself. I had internalized the notion that disability had some sort of threshold, one that I did not meet. I felt like my mental illness wasn’t “bad enough.” Though I didn’t realize it at the time, these thoughts were thanks to internalized stigma around mental health concerns, particularly stigma around the legitimacy of mental illnesses.

But that all changed with peer support.

When I met the other volunteers at the peer support service, I heard them talk about their chronic illnesses, mental health concerns and physical disabilities openly and honestly in a way I’ve never experienced before. For the first time, I was able to talk to people who had similar lived experiences in the realm of mental health concerns. I finally found a space where I could talk about my experiences and frustrations without the fear of stigma and judgment.

I met people with diagnoses similar to mine who self-identified as persons with disabilities. When I told them I wasn’t sure if I “met the criteria,” they told me there was no such thing. To identify as a person with a disability has no threshold to be met. They told me that disability encompasses a variety of things – chronic illness, chronic pain and mental illnesses to name a few. They told me that whether or not I wanted to identify as a person with a disability was a personal choice. Peer support opened my eyes to a new way of understanding my disability as more than a medical and psychiatric condition.

Peer support also introduced me to movements within the disability community, including the disability justice movement and the Mad movement. Involving myself in these movements allowed me to meet other persons with disabilities who had similar frustrations and wanted to see changes in the systems and institutions we interact with. I got involved in advocacy efforts to improve accessibility on my university campus and improve the experiences of students with disabilities.

Beyond just advocacy organizing, I learned about developing pride in my disability. Before I was ashamed of my disability; I felt it was something I had to keep a secret. I felt embarrassed about the accommodations I received at school and would lie about why I didn’t write my tests with the rest of my classmates and why I got extensions on assignments. I would create extensive lies about where I was when I was attending my various appointments.

But some of the people I met through peer support had pride in their disability. They talked about their identity honestly, rather than hide behind a wall of lies. Disability pride can even mitigate some of the harmful effects of stigma. I looked up to my peers who were at a place where they felt pride in their disability and wondered, “How can I get to that point too?”

The more I talked to people in peer support contexts about my disability, the more comfortable I became with the idea. It acted as a stepping stone for me to begin to talk about it with other people in my life. Slowly I became more comfortable talking about my disability openly and honestly. With a lot of time and a great deal of support from the community, I too became prideful of my identity as a person with a disability.

I still access healthcare services regularly, but peer support has helped me in ways the medical system couldn’t. It helped me to accept myself and take pride in my identity. It has introduced me to a community where I feel accepted and welcome. It has validated my identity, thoughts, feelings and experiences. It has given me a platform to make positive changes in my community. It has showed me alternative options and resources to explore. It has been instrumental in my personal recovery process.

Having a disability can feel isolating, but the reality is that about 9 percent of undergraduate students in Canadian universities have a disability, and many more with invisible disabilities might not know they fall into this category. For context, at McMaster that would translate to approximately 2,700 students. The number of students with disabilities and the positive impact these services have makes peer support services necessary.

Two years after first getting involved in peer support services at my university, I now train new volunteers on how to give peer support as the service’s Training and Volunteer Coordinator. I continue to offer peer support and share my knowledge in hopes that I can help at least one student with a disability in this big, daunting institution feel a little less alone.

Originally published: February 11, 2019
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