It took me 21 years to openly say, “I’m disabled.” For years, those two simple words felt like an admission of culpability or weakness. It wasn’t until I consciously decided to broadcast my disability to the internet that I was able to confront my internalized ableism and change how I see my body’s strength — and the strengths and abilities of others in the disability community.
I was born with cerebral palsy and quickly learned that I was “different” in a way I didn’t like. As young as 5 years old, I began to resent the fact that I was the only kindergartner in my class with glasses and the only child in my entire grade who had to wear a leg brace. From then on, I hated my body, and no amount of consoling from my parents could convince me to accept myself. I genuinely believed my body was broken, and the fact that I would remain disabled for life frustrated me. Consequently, out of pure shame, I avoided speaking about my cerebral palsy whenever possible.
Shortly after I began seventh grade, my orthopedist told me the news I’d waited years to hear — I was finally allowed to stop wearing a leg brace. The moment I no longer needed the brace, the questions and stares and pitying remarks that were once so commonplace stopped entirely. I soon realized that I could pass as able-bodied, and because I was still so ashamed of my disabled body, I distanced myself from anything related to disability. I had able-bodied friends, none of whom knew I have cerebral palsy, and I hid the stretching routines and physical therapy tune-ups that seemed to separate me from my peers. I never engaged with other people with disabilities because while I could empathize with them, I didn’t want to reveal my secret.
My refusal to treat my disabled body as valuable ignited layer upon layer of internalized ableism. As much as I believed that my scant interactions with fellow members of the disability community were edifying, my actions and belief systems proved the opposite. I felt uncomfortable talking to people with visible disabilities simply because they were disabled. I noticed others’ disabilities immediately and couldn’t help thinking of all the things I presumed they couldn’t do. I subconsciously leaned into the misinformed belief that disability sports competitions weren’t as competitive as those for able-bodied athletes. And all the while, I hated myself deeply for living with a disability, while simultaneously believing that my self-loathing didn’t fuel systemic oppression.
By the time I entered college, I’d been passing as able-bodied for more than half a decade, and my inability to accept my disability — and by extension, my body — began to take a toll on my mental health. I quickly spiraled into anxiety and depression, and in my second year of college, I began engaging in eating disorder behaviors to punish myself for my “defective” body. Constantly hiding my disabled identity left me feeling completely alone because I always had my guard up around others. I chose my words carefully to conceal my struggles, refused to go back to physical therapy despite intense physical pain, and vetoed the idea of wearing a leg brace again because my roommates would be able to see my body for what it really was: disabled. I disconnected from everyone I met and still refused to connect with the disability community because of my own shame.
But shortly after my college graduation, my entire mindset changed. Hours upon hours of job hunting wore me down, and I was tired of constantly worrying about appearing able-bodied in job interviews — and in every other aspect of my life. I could no longer stand lying by omission about my life experiences and wallowing in self-induced, ableist shame whenever I looked in the mirror. I needed to respect my body — and the only way I felt I could garner self-respect and begin to combat my internalized ableism was to publicly reveal my disability.
So, I wrote about it. I wrote about feeling stuck between the disability community and the able-bodied world, feeling too invisible for either to recognize me. I shared the fear I felt when friends came too close to forcing me to reveal the secret that haunted me for years. I expressed frustration with the physical and emotional pain no one could see and my unrelenting desire to portray myself as able-bodied. And as anxious as I was, I sent my first piece of writing about my cerebral palsy out for publication because now I needed to be heard.
When my article about my private struggles with cerebral palsy was published, my anxiety transformed to pure love as I watched friends and strangers alike embrace every part of me for the first time in my life. That night, I looked in the mirror and no longer saw an “incapable” body; I saw a disabled body with value and worth and potential. I whimsically danced in front of the mirror, feeling completely free as I loved and admired my body for the first time in my life.
Remarkably, the love I felt wasn’t limited to my own body. As I continued to openly explore my cerebral palsy, I connected with other members of the disability community, many of whom live with CP themselves. Soon, I had another group of friends who understood my struggles, and as we bonded, I discovered how valuable all disabled bodies are. Among my new friends with cerebral palsy were dedicated athletes, talented performers, devoted musicians, and passionate writers. Every single one possessed singular talents that they used their disabled bodies to hone. And they all carried a sense of self-love that transcended functionality labels and traditional definitions of physical ability. Sharing about my own cerebral palsy and connecting with the disability community taught me how to value disabled bodies — both my own and others’.
I spent 21 years of my life denying my disability and undermining my abilities and my worth, but my decision to reveal my cerebral palsy on the internet helped me begin to dismantle my years of internalized ableism. Revealing that I’m living with cerebral palsy allowed me to connect with the disability community, which reinforced the truth I’d negated for years: disabled bodies like mine are valuable.
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