Am I Disabled?

A blog reflection written by Women’s Center Staff Member Daniel Willey

I recommend Unruly Bodies (GWST 345, taught by Dr. Kate) to anybody who asks. And to people who didn’t ask. But, whatever okay y’all it’s a good class! I took it two whole semesters ago and I still think about it every day. I’ve been thinking about it even more lately as I ponder the question: am I disabled? I’m 20 years old and I’ve never asked myself this question before. Nobody told me I was disabled, so I just figured I wasn’t. But as I read about disability studies in Unruly Bodies, I came to understand myself as I operate in society very differently.

In a really awesome video in which gender theorist Judith Butler takes a walk with disability activist Sunaura Taylor (link tw: some of Sunaura’s art contains nudity and images of caged and/or dead animals), they talk about what disabled means. Sunaura Taylor has congenital arthrogryposis and uses an electric wheelchair (she’s also a theorist, artist, abolitionist vegan, and disability activist). In the video, Taylor and Butler see an abandoned shoe and Taylor wonders if that person can walk without it. Butler says in response,

I’m just thinking that no one takes a walk without there being a technique of walking.  Nobody goes for a walk without there being something that supports that walk outside of ourselves.  Maybe we have a false idea that the able bodied person is somehow radically self sufficient.”

Wow, okay. So to break it down, what Butler and Taylor are saying is that people have their own ways of moving and doing but that some ways of moving and doing are more normal than others. Our world is built for people who can walk, or walk frequently and easily, and aids like shoes work quite well in this world. Sunaura points out that there is a difference between “disability” and “impairment.” She says her arthrogyposis and how it affects her ability to walk is an impairment, but that the disability comes from the fact that the world is not built for someone like her whose way of moving and doing is NOT walking, but on wheels.

But what does this have to do with you, Dan??

2700brI’m getting there, I promise.

Let’s talk about desks. you know the ones. If you’ve ever had class in Sondheim Hall you know what I’m talking about.

Last year I started having trouble with my back. I have two semi-herniated discs in my lower back which cause me significant pain throughout my day. I have difficulty sitting for more than 20 minutes at a time, but I do it because I’m a student and that’s what we do. But sitting, especially in these desks, all day cause me pain and make it difficult to do my work. I would like to stand at a standing desk in the back of the classroom, but I’ve never had the courage to do it because I feel embarrassed– embarrassed for not being able to fit into the classroom norm and because it doesn’t feel like a “good enough” reason for a special accommodation.

This is really what I’m trying to get at: the combination of body/social norms and stigmatization of disability and accommodations affects my ability to learn and do well in school. I and my fellow fat students run into a similar situation with these specific desks because they’re way too small. The classroom is literally not built for fat students or students with disabilities, and it affects our ability to learn and participate.

There are systems set in place to accommodate students. Student Support Services at UMBC can help you get what you need and they help make it possible for more students to access education. You generally need medical documentation in order to get support from SSS, but that can be difficult if you’re unable to afford an evaluation for a learning disability (which are rarely covered by insurance and can cost over a thousand dollars) or access to healthcare in general.

If you have an invisible illness like Crohn’s Disease or Fibromyalgia it can be difficult to gain access to these services because you might not “look” like you have a disability. Even when you have specific documentation from the institution, individuals within that institution don’t always have the same attitudes towards you and how they see (or don’t see) your disability. This is especially true for women with chronic or invisible disabilities because of the way we think of women’s bodies and how we don’t take women’s health needs seriously.

I’m not just talking about UMBC here people! This is a problem everywhere.

Which brings me back to my question: am I disabled? Am I hesitant to use the term because of what I have learned “disabled” looks like? Is it because I don’t have any official diagnoses that label me as disabled?

As a white, middle class dude with good insurance, I definitely have not experienced the same types of oppression and stigmatization that many disabled people face. In 2013, 28.2% of disabled Americans lived below the poverty line. Over 40% of homeless adults are disabled in comparison to 17.7% of the general population. Being a disabled woman comes with a whole set of different challenges. According to WCSAP, disabled women are disproportionately at risk for abuse and sexual violence. 37.3% of disabled women experience domestic violence compared to 20.6% of non-disabled women. 83% of disabled women will experience sexual assault in their lifetime.

I’m not saying anyone is less disabled because of other privileges. I just mean that in my specific circumstances, I hesitate to include myself in a group that experiences oppression and marginalization because my other identities allow me to navigate “disability” differently.

In the end, I still don’t know the answer. Oh well.

There is so much I could write about this. I haven’t even touched on being a college student with learning disabilities and mental illnesses. Luckily for you all, there are lots of people who have written about all of these things and more already! The fields of Disability Studies and Disability Activism are rich and growing. There’s so much to learn! Check out this really cool disabled blogger’s videos to get you started! There are also some really cool disabled women doing really cool things! Sunaura Taylor and Erin (blogger linked to above) are not the only disabled women you should know. Maysoon Zayid is an Arab-American comedian, actress, and writer who did this great TED Talk about being a funny woman with cerebral palsy.

Remember, when you’re learning more about disability and disability studies:

  1. Google it first. Disabled people on the internet are not info banks for you to tap into.
  2. Don’t ask personal or unsolicited questions about a person and their disability. Some people are excited to share their knowledge and experiences with you. Some people are tired and just trying to live their lives.
  3. Do self-work. Don’t be afraid to learn something. Apply what you learn to your everyday life.
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