Disabled, Not Disheartened

I don’t usually write these types of essays, but being an Occupational Therapy student and a writer with a voice, I felt so strongly about what has occurred to me that I think I must let other people know about it. I hope my first attempt did well. 🙂

I went to the mall a few weeks ago with my family. It was a Sunday, and we had decided to go to the mall after church with our helpers. It is a common practice in the Philippines to employ maids for the family but also treat them as such, and my mother thought it would be nice for them to get out of the house. As we stepped onto the elevator, an elderly couple followed behind us with their helper and their daughter who was in a wheelchair. The wheelchair she was using wasn’t an ordinary one. It looked bulky and heavy, with a sturdy metal frame, a large, reclined back, a cushioned seat, and leg supports. The girl sitting in it was probably in her early teenage years, but she was so small that you could have mistaken her for ten or eleven. Her legs, carefully placed on the leg supports, were atrophied, minuscule compared to the rest of her body, and obviously incapable of any kind of movement. When she spoke, or rather, attempted to speak, her words came out as indiscernible grunts. Despite all this, she was happy. Her parents talked to her animatedly about eating at McDonald’s and possibly getting a free toy, and she laughed and giggled in delight. Throughout this exchange, our helper struggled to contain her mirth at they way this young girl talked.

Another time, I was having a sleepover with my high school friends. We had been planning it for a while, so we were very excited about it. At the time, I was going through the roughest part of my life and trying my hardest to get over it. After losing two loved ones consecutively in the same year and failing my subjects despite my best efforts, I was struggling to fight the depression that had already set in and making me lose touch with reality. I was trying every method I could think of to fight it, and that was part of the reason why I had invited my friends for a sleepover. I needed their support at a time when I could not support myself. So I confessed to them that I had depression and I wasn’t feeling like myself anymore, that it was affecting every part of my life. I poured my heart out to them hoping that it would help ease the heaviness in my chest. They did listen to me, but they laughed off my use of the term “depression”. They told me that it was too strong a word to describe just feeling sad. They told me that to be happy, all I needed to do was “choose to be happy and stop being so sad”. I laughed along with them, but the disappointment and shame I felt in that moment were indescribable.

I’m not writing about these anecdotes to vilify the people involved in them. Our family helper is a hardworking, spunky employee, and my high school friends have been with me for the longest time even if there were points when they misunderstood me. Rather, I’m writing to help them. These stories illustrate how disabilities, both physical and mental, are largely misunderstood in mainstream society. Person with physical impairments are usually shunned and treated as useless, less fortunate individuals who can’t contribute to society, especially in a third-world country like mine. Persons with mental disabilities are told that “it’s all in their heads”, “that they’re overreacting”, or “that they’ll get better if they just stop thinking about it”. Even worse, they are treated as a danger to society that one must avoid at all costs.

In a society that functions on normalcy and thrives on compliance, things that make one different are feared. As a result, anyone who is different is dehumanized. Anyone with a physical or mental disability can recount at least one circumstance of this. I need more than my ten fingers to count the many times I have seen or heard someone with a missing limb or crutches be bullied by people who don’t know any better. The same can be said for people with mental illnesses, who are constantly but needlessly told that they are weak. These people are so often casually called abnormal as if this is simply a fact and not a label that isolates them. The sad thing is that the more persons with disabilities hear the misappropriated labels that are assigned to them, the more firmly they believe them. This can occur most especially if he or she does not have enough social support. From then on, the person with the disability becomes involved in a cycle of victimization and self-pity that is difficult to break out of. We must remember that these labels hurt not just one person, but many. Whenever someone gets called abnormal, weak, stupid, or lame, the effect multiplies for the individual, his family, and his friends.

It’s funny because if you take the opposite of the word abnormal, which is normal, you realize that it’s not a compliment. No one has ever chosen to compliment another on how normal he is. With this reasoning, abnormal is not an insult as well. It is one because we make it out to be one. Sometimes, a person’s disability becomes so prominent in our minds that it’s all we can think about. A person may have a disability, but the disability doesn’t have them. Someone with cerebral palsy can still be a loving daughter or an honor roll student. A person using a wheelchair can still be a star athlete. A man with Down Syndrome can still be employee of the month. Many of the disadvantages that persons with disabilities currently have stem from the assumptions of society and not from their own incapabilities.

The real enemy here is ignorance. We, as human beings, are always frightened by what we don’t know. It is not necessarily right, but it is understandable. While it’s an evolutionary function that has kept us alive for millions of years, it’s not always applicable. Not much is taught in schools about the nature of disability, how it affects people, and how persons with disability must be dealt with the same respect one might give to able-bodied individuals. There are already existing laws for persons with disabilities, but these are rarely enforced properly. People need to be educated, and laws need to be more strictly implemented. Persons with disabilities could contribute so much to society if they only had equal opportunities. Society needs to learn that it’s not okay to sit quietly and do nothing about this problem just because it’s overshadowed by other recent issues. We must take action and overcome our own biases. In the same way that persons with disabilities are more than their conditions, we are more than the prejudices that we hold against them.