For an entire week, I braced myself for the inevitable question that invariably made my heart race and my cheeks flush red.
“Are you currently being followed for any medical conditions?” the psychiatric nurse practitioner would say gently, with warmth in her eyes and an air of neutrality.
“I have cerebral palsy,” I’d respond confidently, unhesitatingly. “Mild left hemiplegia.” No fear. No embarrassment. A perfect reflection of my burgeoning self-acceptance since publicly revealing my disability nearly 7 months before.
As a result of the omnipresent anxiety that prompted the appointment, I constantly rehearsed my potential responses to the nurse practitioner, my mind transforming into a scratched record long before I set foot in her office.
Mild cerebral palsy.
Mild left hemiplegia cerebral palsy.
Wait, where does the accent fall in “hemiplegia?”
Oh my gosh, what if I pronounce it wrong?
Will she still believe I have cerebral palsy?
What if she doesn’t know what cerebral palsy is?
Cerebral palsy affecting my left side.
No, too wordy. I’ll take my chances with “hemiplegia.”
Oooohhh, I’ve got it! Mild left hemiplegic cerebral palsy. Perfect.
But no amount of anxiety-induced rehearsal could have prepared me for the way my new psychiatric nurse practitioner took my medical history.
The day of the appointment, nearly everything had gone exactly to plan. I sat on a large couch in a roomy office, fielding questions about the anxiety symptoms that brought me in, my family history, eating habits and sleeping patterns, attempting to provide sufficiently detailed — yet concise –answers. However, I could feel my chest constricting and my pulse thumping against my skin as I nervously awaited the inevitable question about my medical history.
As soon as the long-awaited question arrived, it jolted me upright, leaving me awash in a peculiar mixture of sadness, anger and shame.
Do you have any health problems? asked the nurse practitioner. I immediately reeled in shock. I had spent months cultivating appreciation and love for my life — cerebral palsy and all — and now, all I could hear was a ringing, pulsing reminder that my disability would only be valuable, lovable, when the “problem” could be resolved, when the symptoms could be remediated, when I could be cured of the unimaginable grievances of spastic muscles, poor balance, bodily misalignment and occasional physical pain. I searched her face for any sign of her beliefs, her intentions. A soft smile was spread across her face, and her eyes were kind. She doesn’t know, I thought. She doesn’t know how much her words hurt me.
As soon as the words escaped her lips, I froze. I knew the answer I had to give for her to receive a fuller sense of both my physical and my mental health. But, in that moment, disclosing my cerebral palsy seemed like an admission that my lifelong medical condition was a burden, rather than the blessing I had grown to love and accept as an integral facet of my identity. I felt I was inadvertently boxed into a regressive mindset without any means of escape.
“I… I don’t really see it as a problem, but… I… um… have mild hemiplegia cerebral palsy,” I stammered, frustrated by my hesitation, infuriated that my hours of preparation for this appointment were all for naught.
The remainder of the appointment progressed smoothly enough, and eventually, it was time to leave, but I remained haunted by the lingering effects of the practitioner’s unintentionally ableist phrasing.
Maybe I do have a problem, I pondered, as I examined my uneven legs in the mirror. For the first time in months, I felt painfully self-conscious, acutely aware of the disconnect between the positive self-perception I had spent months garnering and the pitying way in which society often perceives those with disabilities. I felt anxiety swell within my chest and tears form in the corners of my eyes as I fruitlessly attempted to wish away my medical history, the need to disclose my condition, and the societal perception that my disability, the worldview it provided me and the life it shaped, was nothing but an unresolvable lifelong problem. My disability. My life. My problem.
It took days to restore my fractured self-image, to reconcile my ability status with a sense of self-love. The time I devoted to rebuilding my crumbling self-perception, to convincing myself that my life has value and my disability should instill a sense of pride was crucial, but it simultaneously seemed so unnecessary. Why was I left paying a hefty price for a medical professional’s ableist slip of the tongue?
In professional settings, the responsibility of speaking about medical conditions in a neutral, edifying way should not fall exclusively on the client. It is the medical professional’s duty to use language that does not promote harmful, ableist stereotypes. Referring to a client’s disorder, disease, or disability as a “medical condition” or a “health condition,” rather than as an “issue” or a “problem” removes the implication that the client’s condition is burdensome and the client would be significantly more valuable to society if their condition were cured.
Speaking to or about clients in a careless, ableist way can profoundly affect their self-image. Clients living with medical conditions are often forced to fight the harmful societal perceptions surrounding their conditions, which can lead to unstable, negatively-tinted self-perception. Using language that reinforces deleterious stereotypes can further clients’ negative self-image and cause their burgeoning self-esteem to crumble.
Therefore, it is of the utmost importance for medical professionals to understand the stereotypes and misconceptions with which their clients are faced and to avoid using language that promotes deeply-rooted ableism. Medical professionals must recognize the power of language, exercise care in speaking with clients and, above all else, exemplify the golden rule: Treat others how you would want to be treated.