Identity is something I’ve only really thought about the past few years, when I began to view myself as disabled. Began being the operative word. You can read more about this in my On Identifying As Disabled post. Since starting to think about my own disabled identity, it’s become a topic I find fascinating. There are so many different ways we can identify and it’s interesting to learn how people view themselves and why.
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Something I’ve noticed since becoming visibly disabled is the way other people have opinions on how an individual identities. In some instances, these opinions can influence how one person treats another. This isn’t limited to disability, far from it! However, for the purpose of this conversation I’m going to discuss disabled identity specifically, as this is something I have personal experience of.
What I’ve only recently realised is that a disabled identity isn’t purely something we choose for ourselves. I started to become aware of this when thinking about my identity as a chronically ill and disabled woman, rather than purely as a chronically ill woman. The influence of society in identity is something that’s taken a while for me to get my head round.
I didn’t identify as disabled, or even consider a disabled identity for so many years. Largely because society often perceives disability in a very visual way – guide dog, wheelchair, etc. While I was always visible because of my precision tinted lenses, strangers assumed they were sunglasses. People just thought I was ’weird’ for wearing them inside/during winter/in the dark. Society created a barrier to me identifying as disabled. I watched Bathing Solutions’ Identities videos recently and Umber’s experiences of identifying as disabled when affected by an invisible condition really resonated with me.
Society has the ability to influences how people identify. It can create barriers for identifying in a certain way, but it can also force identity onto people. Not only in terms of a label necessarily, but in the connotations certain labels hold.
Dyslexia is a good example of this. Many people see dyslexics as ‘stupid’ when we are far from it. Too often dyslexics are treated this way by others, because of their perceptions of dyslexia. When this happens it’s easy for people end up feeling like they’re stupid. Particularly if it occurs over a long period of time. The connotations of this identity are largely forced upon an individual by society.
My Mum had concerns about me being investigated for dyslexia. She was worried about how society would label me. Mum didn’t want me to be seen as ‘stupid’. She didn’t want people to treat me that way or for me to potentially give up trying as a result of a label. I have to say, I don’t think my Mum gives herself enough credit for how she brought me up. She’s taught me how to fight and not accept the labels others give me (particularly doctors).
I should mention at this point that I already had my Mears-Irlen syndrome diagnosis, so the support I would have got with a dyslexia diagnosis was already in place. My Mum would NEVER put a barrier in my way to get the support I need. Quite the opposite.
I’ve never identified as being dyslexic. Though I’d more than likely refer to myself as being dyslexic rather than ‘having dyslexia’. I suspect this is because my diagnosis came later on in life, when I was about 23. In addition, nothing changed for me with my diagnosis, as the support was already in place.
As a wheelchair user I’ve had strangers look me up and down with contempt, been asked very personal questions, been mollycoddled and been treated like any other person. All dependant on the individual’s perception of wheelchair/mobility scooter users. In John’s video, he discusses his experiences of how other people view his identity and treat him as a result. It’s well worth a watch.
I wasn’t expecting this post to do so, but it’s lead nicely into the points I’ve made in my visible vs invisible disability and chronic illness post. Society’s influence on our identity, how people perceive our identities and how they treat us as a result, affect both visibly and invisibly disabled and chronically ill people. I hadn’t realised until writing this post, that my visible vs invisible post contains lots of examples of how people’s perceptions of disability affect their attitudes and behaviour towards disabled people.
In terms of my own disabled identity, I still identify more as being chronically ill than disabled. But, I’m learning to embrace the disabled part of my identity. I think it’s taken me a while to get to this point because the disability my hEDS and PoTS causes is variable. I think part of me had a hard time feeling like I had the right to use the term ‘disabled’, despite being a part time wheelchair user. Even now, when I can’t safely stand up, it doesn’t quite feel 100% right yet.
I’ll always be chronically ill. However, there’s a chance that in years to come, my visible disability will become invisible again. And for some reason, society’s view of invisible disability and variable disability is holding me back from fully committing to identifying as disabled.
This post has really made me do some soul searching, thinking about how I identify and why. I’d never say “I’m not disabled” because that would be denial. I’m virtually a full time wheelchair user and, on the few occasions I walk a few feet, I’m not able to do so safely.
I am disabled, but I don’t quite feel it as part of my identity yet, in the way I do with my chronic illnesses. Which is silly, because even if my hEDS and PoTS get to the point where I don’t need mobility aids, they’re still disabling, as is my basilar type and hemiplegic migraine. I wonder whether it’s internalised ablism holding me back.
This is something I’m going to work on. It’s strange, because the way I identify (and struggle to identify) isn’t something I would project onto others. I would never tell someone who is chronically ill, invisibly disabled or has a variable disability that they can’t or shouldn’t identify as disabled. I wouldn’t question their identity or even think twice about it. So why do I still have reservations about fully embracing a disabled identity myself?
After all, I’m proud of the reasons why I became visibly disabled. Needing to use crutches and a wheelchair was a necessary step for my body in the process of having a baby! I’m also proud of how I’ve handled being invisibly disabled. The strategies I put in place to remain invisible for as long as I did, show just how well I can adapt.
Adapting is something all disabled and chronically ill people become good at very quickly. There are so many hurdles for us, but we find ways round them whenever possible. We can all be immensely proud of this!
Check out Bathing Solution’s Identities project to see other people’s experiences of identifying as disabled.
Has your identity (disabled identity or other) been influenced by society?
Have you experienced other people projecting their preconceptions of certain identities onto you?
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