According to Disabled World, more than 650 million people across the globe are living with a disability. There are dozens of varying types of disability and hundreds of support services all aiming to assist in the disability sector. There are also hundreds of stereotypes that surround people living with a disability and, as you probably know, most of them are incorrect.
When most people think of disabilities, their minds flick to someone in a wheelchair or missing a limb. We think of the elderly blind gentleman with his guide dog, or the woman who can’t control her reflex movements. What we often don’t consider is the teenage boy who struggles with reading, or the girl who struggles with social skills. We don’t think always remember that a fit and successful athlete could have a disability, and we often bypass any notion of someone with a disability living 100 percent independently.
But these are stereotypical misconceptions and it’s time we started looking at the truth. People living with a disability have goals, dreams and talents that simply have another milestone to overcome. They have a disability, yes, but they also have the right to a healthy life and a positive place in this world.
In order to understand disabilities, we often try and categorise each ailment, placing it in a box which in turn helps us feel more comfortable. But what about the misunderstandings? What are some preconceived ideas that the world could probably do without?
To kick-start your thinking, here are five things that living with a disability does NOT mean:
1 . Everyone with a disability is in a wheelchair
False. It’s an easy association that people make: wheelchairs, walking sticks and the disabled. It’s not always the case though. There are a large majority of neurological disabilities that are actually invisible. Those struggling with dyslexia, autism or severe mental health issues can often look incredibly normal on the outside, but internally, they are facing significant struggles that we won’t necessarily be able to see or understand. The important thing to remember is that these disabilities can often be just as difficult to manage. Physical disabilities will always be more obvious and we’re always going to be more aware when we meet someone who’s struggling with them. A blind person needs obvious assistance and a person in a wheelchair is easily recognisable. However, not everyone in a wheelchair is a permanent paraplegic and not every person wielding a walking stick is without full vision. There’s varying degrees and elements that make up those living with physical and non-physical ailments. The important part is recognising the difference and the individual.
2. You’re always born with your disability
False. Not every person who is disabled was born that way. Physical disabilities can come at later stages in life due to accidents or ill treatment. It can simply be a matter of ageing or significant weight gain. It can also be a mental health issue that turns into a disability. Dementia, depression, bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, schizophrenia and self-harm can all considered disabilities because they hinder a person from being able to perform day to day tasks. They’re all developed over time and are considered disabilities when they last longer than twelve months.
3. If you live with a disability, you are immune to criticism and insecurities
False. A physical or neurological impairment does not remove emotion from an individual. While those living with a disability might not be able to necessarily express the way they feel in an adequate manner, it doesn’t mean they’re not feeling it. A harsh word or moment of disregard does hurt and when coupled with an ailment that isn’t controllable by the individual, many people living with a disability can develop major insecurities, depression and severe mental health issues. According to the Australian Institute of Health and Wellbeing almost half of those (46 percent) living with a disability also struggle with poor mental health. That’s in comparison to a mere 5 percent of those living without a disability.
4. Living with a disability means you always need constant care
False. Not everyone living with a disability needs a constant carer. Some ailments are manageable with a bit of support or temporary help. By altering a person’s home or perhaps getting a trained pet like a Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) awareness dog, some people can remain independent for much longer.
It is important, however, to recognise that there is nothing wrong with gaining professional care for someone living with a disability. The key is found in ensuring that the disability is recognised, diagnosed and treated with the best lifestyle outcome for the individual. I mean, how many other things do we employ helpers for, without stigma? Cleaners, gardeners, errand-runners, nannies. Why should employing a carer or support worker carry any additional stigma or negative connotation?
5. If you have a disability, you lack intelligence
False. Some of the most intellectually brilliant people are disabled. People living with Aspergers syndrome and autism, for example, often have heightened levels of intellect. One computer company in Denmark only hires employees with Asperger’s syndrome due to their extreme efficiency and intelligence. The way we measure intelligence determines a lot.
In the words of Albert Einstein, “Everybody is a Genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid.”
For example, those living with Down Syndrome are often wildly creative and can grow into masters of art and music. Those with physical limitations can often have a strong resolution to overcome and end up making a huge impact in a motivational and leadership capacity. The goal is not to define intelligence, but harbour it positively.
Seeking to understand a person living with a disability goes a long way. By opening our minds and attempting to relate we are creating a world that not only normalises people who struggle in a different way, but enables them to overcome their specific challenges in order to contribute to the world. By understanding what having a disability doesn’t mean, perhaps, over time, we’ll find more effective ways to help establish what it does mean, in a good way.