You probably wouldn’t know unless you or someone you know is disabled, but July is Disability Pride Month. Whenever this is mentioned, there is always at least one Smart Alec in the comments making the very original statement that disability isn’t something to be proud of. Surprisingly, many of these comments come from disabled people, typically cis-gendered, heterosexual, white men who don’t have other aspects of their identity linking them to other Pride months. While the knee-jerk and semi-correct reaction might be to suggest they have some internalised ableism (unconscious and conscious biases against disability being so deeply ingrained into society that even disabled people can be ableist), I also think that being proud of disability can legitimately be hard. After all, it’s difficult to feel positively about something that you have little to no control over, causes pain and discomfort, and makes many aspects of life significantly harder.
Due to the wide variety of disabilities and the near infinite combinations of disabilities that people experience, disability pride is unique to individuals. Indeed, when I think of disability pride I wouldn’t say I’m proud of the debilitating illnesses themselves, but more the circumstances and situations that have arisen from being disabled. In fact, my first experiences of disability pride actually arose from what we would now identify as internalised ableism.
The first time I can recall feeling disability pride was when I started university. While none of them would admit it, I think many of my peers believed that I had earned my place on the top food science and nutrition course in the country more out of pity or a need to check diversity criteria than actual ability. I very quickly proved them wrong and from thereon out my fellow students were excellent peers, but I did draw pride from the situation. While I still feel pride at proving them wrong, at the time the majority of the pride I felt came from “overcoming” my disability, and achieving what I did “despite” it. It’s taken a long time, but I now understand that disability is not something to be overcome but worked with. I didn’t achieve what I did despite being disabled, but because of it; it made me more adaptable and harder-working. I am who I am because disability has shaped me.
When I think of disability pride now, having worked past much of my internalised ableism, two things spring to mind; visibility, and being able to ask for help.
By visibility I don’t mean whether a disability is visible or not, but the refusal to hide out of sight because disability makes the “ableds” uncomfortable. After all, we are still less than 50 years from the abandoning of “ugly laws” in certain areas of the USA, laws that forbid disabled people from being seen in public because we supposedly ruin the view. Nina Allan sums it up perfectly in her book The Dollmaker, where the protagonist reasons that disabled people are an “unwelcome reminder of what [is] true”; given that most people will become disabled at some point during their life, we probably do remind people of how fragile their body actually is. When able-bodied folks would much rather we hide indoors and offline, out of sight, something very much exemplified by the attitude of certain individuals as pandemic restrictions are abandoned, refusing to hide and instead advocating for your needs to be met is an act of pride. This brings me onto my second point.
You would perhaps assume that disabled people should draw pride from independence, and to a certain extent that is true. However, in my mind, there is no greater act of disability pride than knowing when to ask for or accept help.
Now, before I go any further, it should be said that you should always ask if a disabled person needs help before assisting, and that the answer of the disabled person should be respected. If they say no or provide specific instructions, abide by that answer. Unwanted assistance often makes situations worse, and can even result in injury.
Back to my main point; disabled people shouldn’t feel the need to struggle and potentially hurt themselves just to abide by the standards written by able-bodied people. If a disabled person has a need that in being met would make their life safer and easier, it should be met. It’s not giving in to accept a mobility aid. It’s not giving up to accept accessibility. In accepting these things you, ironically, gain independence; it’s just a different kind of independence. To ask for help in particular shows vulnerability, but to be confident enough in knowing what you can and cannot do far outweighs any vulnerability shown.
I actually struggle a lot with asking for help. At work, in public, and even at home I find myself struggling to be independent when I should be accepting the need for aid. Pretending I’m somehow not disabled helps no one, and is often detrimental. It’s a habit I’m working on, suffice to say.
Hopefully, this has helped you to understand why disability pride is worth celebrating, and if you’re disabled yourself, has perhaps helped you start to unpick your own, unique perspective on the matter. If you’re still struggling with the concept of disability pride, don’t worry; I think that’s pretty normal. Being proud of a disability is not easy. That said, even on the days when you personally aren’t feeling that pride, perhaps don’t rain on the Disability Pride Parade.