My best-kept secret is out, splashed across the Internet where it can be liked, commented on, shared with the world and potentially trolled. Why, then, do I often feel so afraid to reveal my secret, my disability, “in real life?”
It’s all because of the comments. The comments people make when they think no one of consequence is listening. The comments that are typically rooted in undying ableist attitudes. The comments that, unbeknownst to the rest of the world, silence me and my community.
As a person with cerebral palsy who has the distinctive opportunity to be perceived as able-bodied, I have been able to observe the “typical” world without revealing my true identity, leaving me privy to overhearing a myriad of remarks that reveal deeply-entrenched, but completely unintentional, ignorance and ableism.
“I’m glad I don’t have cerebral palsy.”
“I’ve got it! I’ll play this character off as having cerebral palsy. I’ll kind of just shake a little…”
“So, I was, like, completely spazzing out…”
“What are these people, brain-damaged?”
Upon hearing these ableist phrases, I am shaken to the core, completely frozen. My muscles tense. My heart races. I immediately feel sick to my stomach. I desperately wish I could have the courage to reveal myself as disabled, but instead, I transform into an actress poised to deliver an Oscar-worthy performance.
I keep a straight face, careful not to show any emotion. I qualify their words, though never enough to reveal my identity. I become ambivalent, uncommitted to taking a stance. I become passive, too afraid to speak out.
But I care about their words. I care so much that it physically hurts to restrain myself from revealing why I feel so passionately resentful towards the ableist language that peppers daily conversations. In these moments, I desperately wish I had the courage to say, “I have cerebral palsy. I’m living with brain damage and spastic muscles. And when you make light of my medical condition or assume that life with cerebral palsy is unfulfilling, your ableism not only makes my life more difficult, but it also creates attitudinal barriers for the entire disability community.”
Why would I, a woman who’s authored numerous articles about her life with cerebral palsy, a woman who’s candidly revealed that disability is a gift and denounced ableism online, shirk an opportunity to educate those who reveal their ableism “in real life?”
The misguided souls who use ableist language in everyday conversation aren’t just run-of-the-mill trolls, insulting every marginalized group in existence just for the fun of it. They’re friends, teammates, and classmates. They’re people who have previously displayed great kindness and care. They’re people I constantly assume would know better.
To hear people with whom I am well-acquainted share ableist views on disability makes my temperature rise and my blood run cold as my perception of them shifts. I struggle to reconcile their friendliness with their ableism, and the mere thought that I may no longer be respected as their equal if I hint at my disability identity silences me.
Hearing unfiltered ableism from those I know makes speaking the truth and advocating for respectful language and positive disability representation feel unsafe for me as a woman with a disability. Witnessing acquaintances use ableist language forces me to make a heart-wrenching choice between protecting my disability identity by staying silent and advocating for the disability community by educating others about respectful attitudes towards disability.
I hope that one day, I will be able to effectively speak out “in real life” about the impact of ableist language on the disability community and stop ignorance in its tracks. Every day, as my sense of comfort in my disability identity grows, I move one step closer to being fully willing to confidently reveal — even in the “real-life” moments that demonstrate other’s ableism — that my life with cerebral palsy is neither a tragedy nor a punchline.