Hiding who we are
For many people with a disability—and I am one of them—there is always a fear of acknowledging our own disability and our faults. I try to poke fun at my disability (TBI) at times, but there are days when my issues with traumatic brain injury are so significant that I deal with everything from hand tremors to a near inability to retain information. There is a fear, even in the disability community for those with mental disability issues like traumatic brain injury, that the moment we acknowledge our issue, people will immediately leap to the assumption that we’re incapable of taking care of ourselves, that we’re “less than,” and that there’s something so wrong and damaged in us that they just want to say things like: “I can pray for you,” or more often, just say: “I forget things too. I don’t think it’s the brain injury, it’s just being human.” Well, thanks for completely dismissing my reality, I guess. People love to use terminology in these ways because they feel it will be supportive or show that they view themselves as equals in our struggles with memory or anything else that I run into. Frankly, I don’t have enough time in my day to sit and explain to every single person every time it comes up about the extreme differences between someone just forgetting one thing and what it’s like to manage traumatic brain injury effectively.
So what do you do? Many people who suffer from treatable mental disabilities simply are forced to pretend they don’t have them. It’s easier to hide and not tell anyone, or not lean into the problem. Instead of letting people know that you’re having a day where you’re struggling, it’s far easier to just go quiet and struggle by yourself because admitting the problem opens up a Pandora’s box of pity and bad assumptions, microaggressions, and pats on the back.
I’ve been there—and, honestly, I’m still there. Hiding out? It’s easier at times. It is also lying to yourself because you don’t want to acknowledge the situation head-on, as doing exactly that would mean you’re opening yourself up to a lot of microaggressions, bad assumptions and, unfortunately, beliefs that don’t match with reality. For me, I read groups like Kosability, or speak with them and address how to get better daily.
Not just disabled Americans deal with these issues
Faith covers so many great issues within her article, but there’s a simple way to think about how we talk to each other, and how we can respect each other: If someone said this thing to me, personally, or if I was asked this question, how would I react? Would it make me feel good? Or would it feel awkward? Could I feel like I was under attack if someone asked this same question of me?
I’m a cis white male. It’s easy for me to hide my disability. But how would I feel if someone walked up to me, even in that category, and said: “Hey, what are you?” What would I be expected to answer? That I would be of British-Dutch descent—and I just think that? Or that I’m a disabled American? That I’m a Kansas City Football fan? If that’s how I take the question, why would I ever ask that question of anyone else—about their ethnicity, their disability, or their identity? People are never a “what.” It might be better to learn about the “who.” Wouldn’t a better question to establish a dialogue be a simple: “Hi, I’m ,” and let them respond in kind if they desire? Basic decency can still apply, and it makes things so much easier in our day-to-day lives.
Please don’t say: “I don’t believe you”
Do you know an issue that I struggle with at times? It’s validating the experience of others. There’s a simple acronym that helps with that called GIVE.
G = Gentle. Be gentle in your conversations with others.
I = Interested. Show interest in what you are hearing from them; be a good listener.
V = Validate. Validate what you are hearing by saying it back to show you understand and expand on the issue if you can.
E = Ease. Don’t force an issue. Make the conversation one that is open and not one where you automatically push through it.
I struggle with this. I know there are people in my life who have been forced to deal with traumatic brain injury, and I move on Mr. Magoo style. When someone points out: “Hey, you started a project this morning by drilling holes in that wall over there and then you never came back to it,” too often I respond with: “Well, how do you know I wasn’t going to come back to it?!” That isn’t gentle or validating. It’s really just refusing to believe that we are pushing our agenda on others and validate their experience. Now, imagine it from the other side of the table. In your conversations, you seek less understanding and more an intent to just bulldoze through them.
Every. Single. Day. I battle with this one. Every. Single. Day. Admitting that alone is pretty difficult, but acknowledging what is true for ourselves is helpful in trying to figure out how to be better than we were the day before. How we treat each other is something I wish could change overnight. My own experience is that our egos prevent us from really acknowledging when we are wrong and accepting it. It’s far easier to refute rather than validate, because refutation of an experience or problem makes us feel better than establishing an understanding that maybe we were wrong. If you make a mistake and you get it wrong, be understanding. Be easy. Be willing to laugh at yourself and learn.
When you read a story about police violence in Black communities, don’t come back with a story of something in your experience that shows how it’s the same. Don’t point out something similar. Every experience has unique and significant meaning. Devaluing the experience of others rather than validating them is a great way to throw up walls between people, even those of us who are politically on the same side. We can work together to be better and more understanding. All it takes is to be interested and GIVE.