Times I got it wrong about disability

Everything I learned about disability either came from my own personal experiences or from what abled adults were teaching me. And I held some pretty gross beliefs for quite a long time. I’m happy and proud of how far I’ve come, but until I found disabled activists I was a mess. I got a lot of things about disability wrong - here are a few of them.

I didn’t really find my way to the disabled community until I was in college. Towards the tail end of it, even. In high school, I was online heavily like every other teenager, but I didn’t seek out people like me. To be honest, I don’t think I even knew to look. Or how. I had a few disabled friends, less than five, and they were pretty much in the same boat as me. Surrounded by abled peers. So, everything I learned about disability either came from my own personal experiences or from what abled adults were teaching me. And I held some pretty gross beliefs for quite a long time. I’m happy and proud of how far I’ve come, but until I found disabled activists I was a mess.

I got a lot of things about disability wrong – here are a few of them.

Everything I learned about disability either came from my own personal experiences or from what abled adults were teaching me. And I held some pretty gross beliefs for quite a long time. I’m happy and proud of how far I’ve come, but until I found disabled activists I was a mess. I got a lot of things about disability wrong - here are a few of them.
[IMG: Karly sitting in her wheelchair with her hands in her lap. She’s wearing brightly patterned leggings, a peach tshirt, and a white canvas crossbody bag. She’s got a white hat on and tinted glasses. She’s sitting in front of a wall of ferns.]

Comparing ableism to racism

I’m uncomfortable even admitting this, but it’s something I used to do. As gross as that is, I didn’t have the knowledge that I have now on either topic. All I knew was that there was definitely some gross behavior directed towards me and whenever I tried to call it out, I was totally dismissed. No matter what happened, how cruel or discriminatory, there was always an excuse. It was always acceptable and I was always overreacting.

The thing that I failed to realize was that while, yes, racism is called out more often now – it still happens. It’s still very much a problem and literally life threatening for people of color. And also? Disabled poc exist. And they’re experiencing both racism and ableism. It’s not an either/or situation. It’s a layered thing that I have no right to try and compare or equate my experiences to as a white woman.

Every time I think about all the times I made this argument I’m just so disappointed and angry at myself. But I’m so thankful that there are some incredibly patient and well spoken activists online that were willing to educate people like me. Despite the fact that it’s not and should not be their job, certainly not one that they perform free of charge for strangers on the internet.

Judging ambulatory wheelchair users

The fact that ‘disabled’ is a super broad term was always something I knew, but it took me a while to learn the concept of ambulatory wheelchair users. All I really understood was that I needed my chair all the time. For whatever reason, I assumed that was the same for everyone. If I ever saw someone get out of their wheelchair, my immediate reaction was to assume they didn’t really need it. Or to make a snarky comment to whoever I was with.

If I’m being brutally honest with myself, it was some kind of twisted jealousy. For a long time, I struggled with internalized ableism. Seeing people who could get out of their wheelchair, even just for a little while, felt wildly unfair to me. The more disabled people I met or interacted with online, the more I realized what a gross thought pattern I was stuck in. Judging people because I was unhappy with myself was a real bad look. Super yikes.

Wanting to be called an inspiration because of my disability

No one ever told me what inspiration porn was. I had never even heard the term until a few years ago when I stumbled upon Stella Young’s Ted talk. Instead, I grew up being on MDA telethons, which are entirely founded on using little disabled kids and “sad, inspiring” stories to get people to donate. There were a few times as a kid when teachers would tell me I was an inspiration to the other students and faculty. I just kind of thought that was the goal. That being the inspirational wheelchair kid was like, the top accomplishment you could reach. If I couldn’t be the star soccer player, at least I could be *cringe* special.

Obviously, I’ve since grown out of that. Now, I just want to be valued for who I am as a person. I want my accomplishments to be celebrated, not the fact that I smiled in my wheelchair.

Being afraid to be associated with other disabled people

At my schools, there was always a distinction between the disabled classroom and the disabled mainstreamed students. And I was desperate to not be associated with the disabled classroom until around my junior year. I had no problems whatsoever with any of those students, I actually loved spending time with everyone. But I had such a hard time making friends in my mainstream classes, and I felt like it was because I was in a wheelchair.

I think I wanted people to see as little of my disabledness as possible. Like “yeah, I’ve got a 300 lb chair, but other than that I’m just like you!!! Let me prove it to you!!!”. But as I got further into high school, I basically lost interest in making other friends and spent as much time as possible in the PI (‘physically impaired’) classroom. I met my only friend from high school that I still have contact with, and one of my best friends to date, in that classroom.

By the time I graduated, I was just heartbroken that so many amazing kids were kept totally separate from the rest of the school. And with teachers and aides who were 100% not qualified to be taking care of and teaching them. It was a toxic classroom for a lot of reasons, which may have played a role in my resentment of it more than I realized at 13. Anyway, I’m glad I finally wisened up and realized that I literally always want to be associated with my community. Always always.

Feeling ashamed of accessibility

I spent the majority of my education refusing any and all accommodations unless 100% necessary. Looking back, I forced myself to struggle so much more than I ever should have because I was embarrassed of ‘looking too disabled’ by taking things like extended time on exams or using a different desk. Accepting that I needed something different to do the same task felt like I was failing. Like I was admitting that I wasn’t ‘normal’, as if normal is even a thing that exists.

It took me so long to reach a point where accessibility became something I feel passionate about. And even now, while I’ll always celebrate it for others, there’s still occasionally a quiet shame that comes in when I have to request it for myself. It’s not anywhere near as often, though, and I’m working on that all the time.

Just because I’m disabled doesn’t make me an expert on disability or give me any kind of authority.

I goof all the time. I’m constantly learning new things and trying to shift my vocabulary. And I’m not trying to excuse any of my mistakes, either. I don’t have any. I’ve hurt people before. Never intentionally, but intentions aren’t the only thing that matters. We all make an impact, good or bad. I’m trying my best to have a positive impact, but that’s not always the case.

This isn’t the easiest post for me to put out in the world because I’m genuinely embarrassed and uncomfortable admitting some of my grosser opinions I held in the past. But too often we like to pretend like we never made mistakes, like we never said anything offensive or hurtful. Except, we all have. The goal isn’t to be perfect, it’s to be willing to educate yourself and grow. To own up to your wrongs, apologize, and do better next time. So, this is me trying to move on and be better.



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