I’m Not Just a Person With a Disability

The Disabled Community is Capable of So Much More Than You Assume

Stop reducing the worth of disabled individuals. Courtesy Olivia Integlia.

I never thought of myself as disabled. I just thought I was unique. My disability was a quality I possessed that differentiated me from others—no different from hair or eye colour.

It wasn’t until I signed a medical form a few years ago that I noticed, upon looking down to the “additional information” section, I noticed that my chart specified I was “handicapped.” I was dumbfounded, as though the news of my disability had just been broken to me.

In reality, my disability has always been part of my life. I was born with a cleft palate, a malformation of the palate, and Pierre Robin syndrome, an underdevelopment of the jaw. My condition came with an array of complications including difficulty swallowing food, frequent ear and throat infections, difficulty breathing, nasal speech, risk of sleep apnea and dental problems.

I suffered from these complications throughout my childhood. I had nine corrective surgeries and countless dental procedures growing up. After each medical procedure, I went through rigorous speech therapy to readapt to the new oral mechanisms. My parents drove me to weekly speech therapy and orthodontist appointments throughout elementary and high school.

I never let my disability consume my identity, however. I did not want my peers to reduce me to the so-called girl with disabilities.

I remember having to fight my teachers to allow me to do oral presentations in front of the class, as opposed to one-on-one. They tried to convince me that it was in my best interest because my classmates might laugh or mimic my voice. I didn’t care. It felt worse to be ostracized from my peers.

As I got older, I figured it might be better to just omit my disability because I didn’t want to be treated differently—although my nasal speech, being the most prominent complication, was very noticeable. Anyone who spoke to me could recognize that I had a severe speech problem.

My nasal voice made me a target for bullies, as though my disability made me unable to have feelings. Some classmates would make fun of my voice, imitate my speech or call me “weird.” I just shook that behaviour off as kids being ignorant, faulting their parents for not teaching them proper manners.

What bothered me most were the adults that were openly ableist to a child who could not defend herself—and it still bothers me. I will never forget being rejected from the choir in school because the music teacher told me I had “a frog in my throat.” I am grateful that my parents and older sister tirelessly defended me in these cases. Let’s just say, after my mother confronted the choir teacher, I sang front and centre for the CTV Share the Warmth Christmas concert.

As an adult, my speech problem disappeared almost entirely. I often think back to the treatment I faced when my voice was more nasal.

Teachers, students and even strangers crossing paths with me treated me differently, as though I was inferior to them.

One particular memory of mine stands out. In a parent-teacher conference in secondary one, my mother was approached by my science teacher, who felt she had cracked the Da Vinci code in attempting to diagnose me. “Is your daughter deaf?” she asked almost condescendingly after admitting that she went as far as contacting my former elementary school to obtain my file. My mother clarified that I wasn’t. I overheard this conversation from right outside the door, confused as to why this was even relevant to ask.

She probably asked because she assumed my disability would affect my performance in her class. The fact was that I had been doing well, participating greatly and even sitting front row, answering every question. I had not given her a single reason to think that my disability would affect my performance in her class.

The assumption that my disability would affect my class performance is riddled with implicit biases harmful to the disabled community. There is this misconception that exists that all people with disabilities struggle intellectually—this is simply untrue.

I have also come across people who host pity parties for me when I would disclose my disability. “I feel bad for you,” they say. “You must have had a really tough childhood,” or “I am so sorry.”

Let’s get one thing straight: people with disabilities don’t spend their lives cast in dark shadows, sulking in misery. Most of us can live happy, fulfilling lives, despite requiring accommodations.

Able-bodied or not, nobody likes to feel like their life sucks, especially when they don’t think that themselves. I recognize I have felt pain and endured procedures that some will never experience, but those moments in my life are minimal compared to the good moments I’ve had.  

And let me clarify, my successes don’t hold more weight due to my disabilities. As a competitive debater, people often praise me for pursuing debate in spite of my speech problem. I find the overcompensation of praise quite condescending. Today, I proudly coach debate for two institutions and stand as president of the Concordia Debate Society strictly because I worked hard and practiced long hours to refine my skills. I value these skills so much more than just improving my speech. Debate gave me confidence and taught me how to research and structure my thoughts. 

Comments are often not ill-intentioned. But as a society, we must pay greater attention to our implicit biases which harm and generalize the disabled community. These uninformed assumptions further feed the stigma surrounding disability. We are a community of people with the same hunger for everyday joys and challenges as the rest of you.