Before I became disabled, I’d had a limited experience with disabled people. I’d never seen a disabled person in a position of authority. My family wasn’t disabled. My friends weren’t disabled. I’d never met a disabled teacher, scout leader, parent, or mentor. I don’t think I’d ever even read a book with a disabled main character. So, understandably, becoming disabled was terrifying. As far as I could tell, my life was over.
It wasn’t, as I gradually learned.
I started to notice that not everyone around me was able-bodied. I had never really seen them before, but now I saw disabled people everywhere, negotiating stairs and streets and subways, using canes and walkers and wheelchairs. They became my proof that a disability did not have to limit my access to the world, even if that world wasn’t very accessible to any of us. I read books and blogs and listened to podcasts by people with pain, disabilities, and terminal illnesses. And I learned that people are living and thriving with a vast variety of abilities and brains and bodies. It was inspiring—and not in a fetishistic way like oh, those poor people are so brave, but like so many hands or feet or torsos reaching down to pull me out of the pit of ableism, so many voices saying, “Stop apologizing. Stop blaming your disability. Demand your right to participate in life.”
I began tentatively asking (sometimes shouting) for accommodations when I needed them, and I mostly got them, and often kindness too. I began asking the world to accommodate me and stopped feeling so inadequate when I couldn’t accommodate the world. And whenever I advocated for myself, the world would seem to get less hostile, and the terrified part of me would relax a bit.
This has been a slow, hard road, and I’m still on it.
But I’m grateful. Because becoming disabled has made me realize that all my life I have lived in a world that excluded certain people. Every stair I climbed, every line I waited in, every round-knobbed door I opened, every lecture I heard without an interpreter, every small font I read was a barrier to a whole portion of the population—a portion I assumed didn’t exist because I didn’t see them.
Now I see that these people who are excluded are all around me, seen and unseen, heard and unheard. Now I am here with them too.