By: Eliza Young
Disability is a broad term that may seem hard to define. There are the medical definitions and the legal definitions, but what matters to me is how my disabled community defines disability.
Who can be included in the disabled community? What unites all disabled people? The answer, like for most communities, is a set of shared experiences of the world.
Disabled people, for all our differences, have experiences navigating a world constructed for people not like us. I believe disability is a socially constructed idea that because someone’s body or brain doesn’t work in the “expected” way, they are different and abnormal. In fact, variation in bodies and brains is natural, and the idea that all people should experience the world the same way is a social belief that erases differences in the way people experience and interact with the world.
That being said, not everyone who has a disability identifies as disabled, and that is OK. I have had experiences that led me to realize I am disabled and why it is okay — and even empowering — to identify as disabled.
One thing I remember most vividly about elementary school is struggling to learn to read. While most people don’t remember learning to read, it was a daily struggle I faced for years.
I recall the moment I realized I was different. I was in first grade; the class was working on a worksheet about words and letters that I couldn’t pay attention to. Every couple of minutes I would get up to ask my teacher “how long until lunch.” I noticed that I was the only kid not working diligently on my worksheet. I wondered how they were all able to pay attention and felt confused and alienated by this thing that everyone else seemed to be able to do effortlessly that I couldn’t seem to do no matter how hard I tried.
That memory is the first instance of a feeling that I would come to know well — the frustration of trying as hard as you possibly can and still failing. It was only later that I learned my eyes couldn’t focus on a close object for more than nine seconds at a time. Every nine seconds the page would split into two images, and my eyes had to struggle to bring them back into focus. This condition, called convergence insufficiency, is why I was having so much trouble concentrating and reading.
I was formally diagnosed by a doctor a couple months after I realized there was something different about me than my classmates. My parents and the doctor explained that the way I was experiencing the world is not the way everyone else experiences the world — a profound concept for a 6-year-old to wrap their head around. I had to learn early on that I couldn’t trust what I was seeing and understand that other people’s vision didn’t split into two images. I hadn’t realized I was seeing the world differently than everyone else.
My experience is not universal, but it shows even though kids are young, they can figure out they are different and feel alienated and strange because of it. Being diagnosed gave a name for my experience, demystified it, and provided steps for how to improve my situation. The diagnosis and label of “different” is not what made me feel different, I already felt that way. It is important to help kids understand what is happening and why they have different experiences from their classmates.
Throughout elementary school, I was pulled out of the classroom since I was reading a grade level behind. By the time I was in fifth grade, I understood that I had a learning disability and had difficulties with reading that other people didn’t. I understood why I was pulled out of the classroom for tests and began to look forward to being placed in the distraction-free environment. Knowing about my learning disability helped me fight the fear that I wasn’t smart because I knew there was a reason I had trouble in school.
Despite recognizing my learning disability, I still had trouble seeing myself as disabled. One reservation I had was that I felt identifying as disabled would take away from people who had “real” disabilities. I didn’t want to take any resources from people who had, what I viewed as, more intense disabilities. I didn’t want to claim an identity that wasn’t meant for me.
Experiencing academic discrimination for the first time in high school was a factor that really made me understand my disability was not just an inconvenience, but a truth that impacted every aspect of my life. It is a physiological issue, not an internal psychological and emotional issue, that affects how I interact with the world and changes the way people treat me.
My experiences crystalized for me that not only were the bureaucratic systems I attended not set up for students like me, but individuals within the education system routinely underestimate students with disabilities. This effectively takes away our agency and ability to achieve our goals.
Obviously, there are some realities that students with disabilities live with that cannot be changed, even with all the motivation and agency in the world. For instance, I am never going to read at a normal reading speed; my eyes just physically cannot move that fast. This doesn’t mean I can’t read textbooks and succeed in school. When given the proper support and accommodations, I can succeed just as well as my classmates. It is a matter of getting me the resources to be able to succeed and giving me the support I need rather than forcing me to lower my expectations of what I can achieve. Level the playing field; don’t lower the bar.
I realized that I didn’t have to be “disabled enough” to claim my identity as a disabled person and comparing disabilities was not helpful or necessary. No two disabled people have the same experience with being disabled; and, thus, no two disabled people are equally disabled.
One thing I wish I could tell my younger self is that the disability community, overall, is very accepting of people who identify as disabled. As a community, we don’t question if someone identifies themselves as disabled since many disabilities are invisible and people can have different experiences and still be disabled.
The process of realizing I had a disability empowered me and gave me a way to understand and frame the experiences I was having. The absolute best part of claiming my disabled identity was being connected to a big, welcoming, and extremely supportive community of other disabled people. It made me feel less alone in what I was going through and able to connect with others who had similar perspectives.
Disability is not a dirty or degrading word. It is not something to be shied away from or euphemized with “special needs,” “challenged,” or “differently abled.” It is an identity that has meaning both in connecting to a community and in legal protections.
Children know they are different, so pretending otherwise and teaching them that disability is a bad or shameful word will only hurt them long term. Instead, teaching them acceptance and strategies that work for them will give them the tools they need to succeed. To people with disabilities out there, you are allowed to identify as disabled, and to parents and teachers, teach your kids that disability is just a normal part of life, not something to be ashamed of.
Disability is part of who I am, and rather than limiting my potential, it expands my world.
Eliza Young is an alumni member of the National Center for Learning Disabilities’ Young Adult Leadership Council
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