Tag Archives: learning disabilities

Why I Stopped Referring to Disabilities as “Gifts”

This is something I have wanted to write about for a long time.  I avoided doing so because I know that there will be backlash, but I’m at the point where that’s a risk I’m willing to take.  Besides, I’m the gold standard for what is and is not an appropriate comment, so anyone who wants to spew BS has to get past me first.

Here goes: I am done referring to disabilities as gifts.  I am done pretending to agree with people who refer to disabilities as gifts.

As someone who lives with multiple disabilities and has had exposure to many others, I firmly believe that calling disabilities “gifts” is dishonest.  I read this great article about the disservice that autism whitewashing does to all involved.  That doesn’t just apply to autism.  If you had to live with any of my conditions and you called them gifts, I would ask what you’ve been smoking.  Please don’t misunderstand me.  I’ve learned the hard way that the victim mentality gets us nowhere.  But neither does faking positivity.

During the past couple months, I’ve had several experiences that show just how anti-gift my conditions really are.  Being down to one working hearing aid and struggling to understand what’s being said is not a gift.  Losing compassionate, knowledgeable providers to insurance changes and knowing more than your new doctors is not a gift.  Incompetent pharmacies that botch your refills are not a gift.  Being shamed because essential oils, while wonderful, did not miraculously cure you is not a gift.  Being told that G-d is mad at you for being sick is absolutely NOT a gift.

There have been many gifts in the midst of these recent crapshoots.  Friends who have seen me at my worst and love me anyway.  Kitty snuggles that lower my heart rate and pain level, even if only by half a point on the pain scale.  A husband who throws on his “caregiver” hat when I need him to.  I am so grateful for those gifts and I don’t take any of them for granted.  But it’s life itself that brings gifts.  Disabling conditions just plain suck

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The Problem With “Special”

For most of my life, I was branded as “special.” That’s what happens when you have any kind of disability. (I’ve held off on writing about my learning disability on my blog for a number of reasons. The main reason is the issue of labeling and diagnosis. As an adult who has done a lot of research, I firmly believe I was misdiagnosed. I don’t deny that I’m wired differently and have places in my brain that just don’t click. But during my adult life, a few different psychologists verified that I was probably misdiagnosed. I may write more about that in another post. I haven’t decided yet.)

When you have any kind of disability, you typically get the label of “special needs” and people focus more on what you can’t do than what you can do, which, not surprisingly, can make you focus more on what you can’t do than what you can as you grow up. It’s like there’s this unspoken rule that you’re supposed to wear the “special needs” label proudly and aspire to become a motivational speaker.

I bought into it until I was well into my teens. I got it into my head that I was going to be a motivational speaker. What I couldn’t vocalize was that I ran with this idea because I didn’t think I was capable of anything else. I can’t blame one single person for this mindset. Parents, teachers, and society in general were all equally responsible. It’s what we’ve all been taught. It’s both nobody’s fault and everybody’s fault.

Then I watched this amazing TED talk by Stella Young, and she took all the words right out of my mouth. I want to share with you some specific ways in which the label of “special” has been damaging to me.

1.) It was dehumanizing. It’s not empowering to tell someone they can be a motivational speaker if you imply that they have to settle for that because they will never be a productive member of society otherwise.

2.) It gave me a completely inaccurate picture of my own abilities. It amazed my loved ones when I got my driver’s license, had several positive work experiences, and got married. Because it amazed them, it amazed me. Again, this is what we’ve all been taught is normal. Maybe it’s normal, but normal and healthy are not interchangeable.

3.) Even though I was labeled as “special”, I was not valued. People with disabilities often lose their true identity to the “special needs” label. As someone who’s gone through the school system with a learning disability, I will tell you that teachers and case managers seldom see us as individuals. (The issue of misdiagnosis and inaccurately diagnosing various learning disabilities is a huge contributor to this problem, but that really deserves its own post.) We live in a world where people think reading a paragraph on a disability or condition is a substitute for getting to know someone. Yes, I’ve struggled royally in math and science. (I’m convinced the left portion of my brain is just not in there, to be honest!) Yes, bright light sometimes hurts my eyes. Yes, I get a bit agitated (ok, sometimes very agitated!) when my to-do list gets too long. You can read all those facts in any article or medical journal. But those sources will not tell you who I am. Those sources do not tell you that Kati is smart, funny, adores her husband, has way too many books, and knits way too much. Those are the things that make me who I am, and those are the things that were seriously under-valued when I was in school.

I’m referring to my learning disability in this post, but the “special needs” dilemma is not unique to learning disabilities. This was not an easy post to write and I’m sure people will have strong opinions about it, but that doesn’t make it any less important to share.