Phrases like these are common, and I’ve quickly begun to hate them for a good reason. At first, the idea that was perpetuated by para-Olympians and social justice warriors was inspiring. I used to feel my heart swell with pride hearing these people talk about the struggles that they had overcome to get where they are. The point they were trying to make with statements like these was that they could achieve almost anything in spite of their disability, which is truly inspiring. Having role models to look up to in the public eye is always important, but that doesn’t mean that these statements aren’t problematic at all.
As a young person with a disability that’s considered ‘invisible’, these role models are so often used as ammunition against me (‘If [insert name here] can win a gold medal, you’ve got nothing to complain about). I’m forever being accused of using my disability as an excuse or being ‘helpfully’ informed by people with no experience of what I am going through, that they don’t consider me to have a disability. But, as Elizabeth Haynes said “Nobody can see pain. They have no frame of reference for pain that’s happening in someone else. They can only see inactivity- which is interpreted as laziness.”
In order to really put this into perspective, it seems necessary to refer to the disability discrimination act for a composite definition of what constitutes a disability. The act states that a disability is “a physical or mental impairment that has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on the ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.” And this definition certainly fits what I, and many others like me, suffer from.
Admittedly, this isn’t entirely the fault of any one person, but rather the way we, as a society, talk ,or don’t talk, as the case may be with disability. Regularly hearing things like ‘I don’t let my disability define me’, doesn’t always help the situation, though.
Paralympians like Tom Aggar, and comedians like Francesca Martinez are absolutely incredible people, and I’m aware that my disabilities are relatively mild compared to what these people have been through, but again, this doesn’t make life any easier for the rest of us.
Frequently being informed that there are plenty of people who have it worse than me- as if it’s some sort of misery competition- doesn’t mean I suddenly possess the ability to wash my own hair, or run a half marathon.
In reality, my disability does hinder me. It hinders me a lot. It makes regular, everyday tasks, such as tackling a flight of stairs, seem like an impossible feat, and this is what people don’t see when they look at an athlete in a wheelchair. They can’t see how said athlete has to make changes to his or her everyday routine purely to accommodate a wheelchair.
Yes, I find alternate ways to do these tasks and, no, my disability won’t stop me from achieving my goals, or striving to better myself. It won’t stop me from working as hard as possible to support myself, and I certainly won’t stop looking up to people representing disabilities on the world stage. But it’s important for those around me, particularly my family and friends, to recognize that this is something that has a huge impact on my day to day life and cannot be compared to the struggle of the girl with Down Syndrome who lives next door, or the double amputee down the street.