by Jae Stafford, SFU Student
I can’t count the school days I missed growing up because of my disabilities. Gastrointestinal issues like GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease), IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), and functional dyspepsia (recurring signs of indigestion with no obvious cause), alongside my anxiety and depression, kept me from participating in my classes. I had so many absences in high school, my school threatened court hearings to investigate my missed days. Even when I was made fun of for my OCD’s “quirks” and I hardly socialized at all, I didn’t consider myself to be functionally impacted by any conditions because I was often adored by teachers for being quiet and reorganizing their things.
In just about every sport and PE class I participated in since I was 12 years old, I’ve required accommodations and breaks to manage my chronic pain and fatigue. By the end of high school, I was showing up to practices with four braces, a splint, and medical tape all over me. Still, I shook the idea that I could be disabled. It was a word I was raised to believe could never describe me, and one that was cloaked in shame and distress — or so I had been taught.
I have had disabilities most of my life, and it took until I started university for me to really acknowledge them and unlearn the shame with which I was raised. Now that I have embraced my disabilities as part of me, I’ve realized just how inseparable being disabled is from the rest of my identity.
When I came to SFU, I had to leave my then-team of supporters. This included my therapist, two clinics of physiotherapists, an orthopedic surgeon, and the family clinic that had all gotten to know me well. Then I found my new support team. As I developed new conditions and my older conditions remained, I was still hesitant to consider myself disabled. It wasn’t until connecting with other disabled people through SFU and the greater disability community, and recognizing the ableist barriers I face, when I really understood I have a place in the disabled community.
In my first year of university, I began experiencing more severe symptoms of what has now been diagnosed as borderline personality disorder and bipolar I disorder. I also had traumatic experiences before moving and during my first year which exacerbated symptoms to dangerous points. By my second year at SFU, I saw rapid changes in my inner ear condition, Ménière’s disease, which further impacts my hearing and causes me unpredictable episodes of severe vertigo, sudden falls, and poor balance. Watching myself lose more and more functionality over the years was a wake-up call — I could no longer hold onto the discomfort I had. Why would I be uncomfortable admitting I need some support or that I’m limited in what I can manage in a day? Why should anyone be ashamed of their disabilities?
In some ways, my disabilities are tied to the ableism that closely follows them and to the systemic barriers I face. Some healthcare providers, professors, and even my peers have taken them as a reason to treat me with little respect. While I do struggle with how others may treat me based on some of my disabilities, I know there is much more to being disabled than the trauma we sometimes live through. While being disabled has meant, for me, experiencing ableism, my disabilities are much more intertwined with the love I have for my community than the barriers we face. Disabled people are everywhere, and we are worthy of respect and love.
I no longer think of my disabilities as something that went wrong like I internalized growing up. This is who I am, and whether I was born with disabilities or developed them later, they are a part of me, and I embrace them. I still struggle to manage many of my symptoms and can never live a totally symptom-free life; however, that does not make me worth any less. These parts of me are just that: integral to the way I view and interact with the world around me.
Since accepting chronic conditions as a part of my life, I’ve become more confident in myself. I have learned to use a cane some of the time to manage my balance, pain, and fatigue. Buying my first cane was not the scary experience a younger version of me might have thought; it feels freeing to embrace something that makes me more confident in safely moving around, and I even painted fun colours on it to express myself!
As I embrace my disabilities, I am more comfortable fighting against the barriers I’ve faced my whole life. I have learned to coax pride out of myself and wear it everywhere, more like a blanket than armour.
Growing up, I may never have imagined that I would be disabled, but I also never imagined the amazing community I would find or the journey I would go on because of my disabilities. I am proud of who I am, disabilities and all.