Welcome to the club. What club is that, you may ask. It is quite an exclusive one so you should feel proud to be part of it. But you don't remember joining one, do you? The day you discovered you had a disability, you became a member, not by choice, but by ascription. You are now officially a 'disabled person.' Let me explain.
The title (some call it a label) of 'disabled' probably does not feel as if it is a privilege, nor does it feel desirable. It is unfortunate, but true, that society in general has perceived this particular designation as 'less than' or in some way deviant from the 'norm.' In reality, though, to be disabled, to have a disability, is really simply part of the human condition. In and of itself, it is neither good nor bad, positive nor negative, as a human characteristic. How you think, how your brain works, what parts of your body look like or what those parts are capable of doing, are all part of the variety of forms human bodies/minds take. We are all similar only through the fact that we are all so very different.
What it means to be disabled, or to have a disability, is actually a social construction. We, as society, have constructed the meaning given to disability and, as such, have the power to reconstruct its meaning. You are now part of that reconstruction process as you join the ranks towards a college education.
In the last half of the 20th century, people with disabilities, disabilities of all kinds and shapes, began the process of redefining what it means to have a disability. They felt it should not be an automatic stigma that gave a person lower status and less access to the benefits and opportunities of society. Instead, they realized that their particular differences were merely part of what it means to be a human being. Therefore, they began to fight for the right to be considered equal participants in the world and worthy of the same opportunities and responsibilities as any other person. Their struggle back then has made it possible for you to be in college right now.
In 1977, a group of people with disabilities, many with college educations, protested against the federal government for its delay in implementing specific requirements that would give qualified individuals with disabilities the right to access education (among other things as well). This was the birth of the disability rights movement. The federal requirements at stake affected both the K/12 system as well as higher education.
The strategy of protest was very successful and resulted in specific actions by the whole of education to provide support for any qualified student with a disability. You likely got through your elementary and high school education with the support of some of these federal requirements if your disability came to you early in life. Regardless, you now have the opportunity to pursue higher learning due to other federal requirements that went into effect after this protest activity.
I wish I could say that the struggle you have in college is not much more than the struggle to learn new things about yourself and the world. You certainly do that but you also need to be aware of the other struggle you face. It is the same struggle your predecessors faced - the outdated perceptions of what it means to be disabled. You will meet many professors, administrators, and other students who simply will not understand (and at times, refuse to understand) who and what you are. It will be tough. But when that happens, please do not despair. Remember what your predecessors believed and why they fought back against such perceptions.
It took society over a century to relinquish the idea of slavery, another form of discrimination based on a human characteristic, and even though we are still battling some of its remaining effects, times have changed for the better. So, too, with the oppression imposed on those who have disabilities. That battle is much younger and we've a long way to go but as part of the club, you now have the opportunity to contribute to the effort. You are now part of the movement whether you know it or not. What you do in response to the attitudinal barriers you encounter is all part of the strategic plans of the larger war.
Your response does not need to be coercive or combative, nor does it need to be passive when you encounter those who have misguided ideas about you. You need not react in anger toward your professor, nor must you passively hide your need for accommodation and flexibility. Hopefully, your response, your strategic stance, will be assertive as you try to fulfill the rights and responsibilities you have as a participant in a college community. As mentioned, this will not be an easy task.
How people perceive you, how they evaluate your capabilities, strengths and weaknesses, will often run counter to what you know about yourself. The reactions and perceptions of others will even likely create some doubts in yourself as to who you really are. However, always remember that what society has 'constructed' about you can also be 'de-constructed.' That deconstruction begins with you and the meaning you give to your own identity as a disabled person.
One question to always ask is whether or not your particular situation is due to the barriers of the environment. If the environment were to be designed differently, would you be able to accomplish your goals? Or are you really not able to do what is required? These questions can often help determine whether your limitations are what keep you from doing what it is you want to do or whether it is something created externally. If it is the latter, it then becomes a socially constructed barrier.
Each person determines for him or herself what disability means and what value it has in the grand scheme of things. You are the future that those individuals in 1977 had in mind. They knew you would be here as they had faith in the 'rightness' of their concept of disability. While the environment may not have changed as much as it should, or could, to accommodate to your abilities, it is now an expectation that you have the opportunity to fulfill your potential. Whether or not you fulfill that potential is always going to be your responsibility; graduation is not guaranteed. But you now have the right to have that as your goal.
The battle to transform the worldview of disability began with a small group of individuals who all differed from one another in physical and mental capabilities. Alone, none would have been able to accomplish much; together they changed history. You, too, need not fight your battle alone. Look for your allies and use the resources that are now part of the environment that were not available back in 1977 - accommodations such as extended time on tests, books in alternative format, etc. Although everything you need may not be readily available, the system did change to make sure you had a chance to prove what you are capable of doing. With that opportunity comes the responsibility to be what your predecessors had hoped for - a full participant of the community of the world as a disabled person. Be proud of that distinction as it continues to challenge others to see you as you should be seen - as a full member of the diverse human race.
There are many you will meet who will try to dissuade you from the title of 'disabled.' I hope you can resist that feeling. As a person with a disability, I am proud of the distinction. While my disability may not be the same as yours, I understand the significance of the designation of my particular characteristic. It has afforded me much insight into being truly human. It challenges me to be creative in problem solving and it strengthens my ability to accept others for who they are, making me a better person of the world. The struggles I've faced have made me stronger to meet all of life's challenges.
Your particular disability can do the same for you, if you so choose to see it as one of your unique attributes and use it for positive results. It connects you, too, to a much larger community of people who struggle with the same barriers you face in society. What binds us all together is not whether we have the same disability but the fact that we have all been subjected to the same outdated perception of what 'being disabled' means, including an environment that did not take our needs into account in its initial design.
I challenge you to construct your own meaning of being disabled and not to buy into what the rest of society seems to be telling you. In reality, there are a great many people who are trying to get another message across to the world and to you. Listen to that other message and weigh it against your own perception. Determine which message feels best for you.
Be proud of, and in, your identity. And, once again, welcome to the club.
With you in allegiance -
Resources for Disabled Students
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