Learning to Embrace the Word "Disabled"

Contributor
Julia Rouillard

I’m a massive reader, and I’m going to school for writing, so words are pretty important to me. They’re how I process my emotions and the world. I also tend to find a lot of power in labels. If I can describe something, I can understand it. When part of my identity diverges from what’s considered “normal” (whatever that means), I find comfort in being able to portray my own version. It also means that, in the past, I’ve cycled through quite a few monikers before I found ones that fit.

I was diagnosed with type one just before first grade. For most of the time growing up, I didn’t have any problems calling myself diabetic. Even when I was less than thrilled with the whole chronic illness thing, it remained a fact. In my brain, it wasn’t a loaded word yet.

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"Around the end of my junior year, I made the decision that I was finished being a diabetic. Instead, I had diabetes. It seems simple, but that person-first shift made a big difference. It reminded me that type one wasn’t all of me."

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That shifted once high school rolled around. I started paying more attention to language in general, started realizing that I wanted to make writing a career, and started having my first extended experiences with burnout. Around the end of my junior year, I made the decision that I was finished being a diabetic. Instead, I had diabetes. It seems simple, but that person-first shift made a big difference. It reminded me that type one wasn’t all of me. I had friends, I had good grades, and I had diabetes.

Applying to college was the first time that I came across the word “disabled” and “diabetes” in the same context. It didn’t sit right. In talking about it with my friends, I would try to water it down: “I mean, technically I’m disabled, but…” I knew that it was true without the technicality, but it’s almost like I thought it didn’t apply to me because I played sports and had decent control of my numbers.

Looking back on it, the issue was that I had internalized the way our society views disability. It’s a broad term with a long history. To briefly narrow it down to its connotations, “disability” is often clumped together with the word “can’t”. A person’s disability is used (often by able-bodied people) to describe what they supposedly can’t do, regardless of whether that’s actually true. Instead of being a neutral term, the underlying idea that I had always noticed in the media was that disabled wasn’t a good thing to be; it was a weakness. None of that matched the way I’d always known I could live my life. The issue wasn’t that I didn’t have a disability, it was that I didn’t have one in the way society expected me to.

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"I dismantled the false idea of disability that I’d been exposed to. I began posting about diabetes on social media, and found other T1Ds to follow. It finally connected for me that “disabled” wasn’t a bad word. I finally accepted that it described me."

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I didn’t think much about the term after that point. During my freshman year of college, I decided that the person-first approach wasn’t doing it for me anymore. I now had to reintroduce myself and my accommodations to professors every semester, and I felt like person-first took up too much space. I’ve always dreaded telling people about type one for the first time, and it felt quicker to tell someone “I’m diabetic,” hand them the paper with my accommodations on it, and bolt as soon as I could. I realize now that it wasn’t actually any faster, just me not wanting to call attention to myself, but it made the conversations the tiniest bit more bearable, so I went with it.

It wasn’t until a few months ago when I took a class called Disability in the Media that I revisited the term “disabled” in relation to diabetes. This was the first time I’d been presented with a class where the focus was on disability. We learned about the history, the disability rights movement, and did a ton of analyzing media portrayals and stereotypes. We broke down tropes and watched positive portrayals of disability. Even though the class rarely touched on diabetes specifically, I dismantled the false idea of disability that I’d been exposed to. I began posting about diabetes on social media, and found other type ones to follow. It finally connected for me that “disabled” wasn’t a bad word. I finally accepted that it described me.

The language we use contributes to how we see ourselves. Labels that I’ve felt comfortable with in the past no longer sit right, and I’ve replaced them with ones that match where I’m at as I grow. Words aren’t static, and the way we think about them often morphs alongside us. It took a while, but I managed to understand that “disabled” isn’t a bad word.

 

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Julia Rouillard
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Julia Rouillard is in the class of 2021 at Emerson College where she majors in creative writing and has a minor in hearing and deafness. She’s published several short stories and blog posts. In her free time she can usually be found doing the crossword or devouring YA fiction. You can find her on twitter at @juliaisagrandma.