I Was Ignorant to Disability Until I Became Disabled

Approximately 15% of the world’s population lives with a disability.1 Disabled people are young and old, rich and poor, and everything in-between. Disabled people are artists, scientists, athletes, leaders, parents, and friends. Yet, so many people remain ignorant to disability because it’s not a major part of their lives. But I get it — it’s easy to live in ignorance as an able-bodied person. I know, because I used to be just the same.

I wasn't always disabled

I lived able-bodied for 18 years before I developed ankylosing spondylitis (AS). I enjoyed my ability, never thinking twice about my privilege and never imagining that it would one day be taken away. I had a surface-level understanding of disability, but it wasn’t something I cared about. Of course, I didn’t go out of my way to mistreat disabled people — but by living in ignorance, I was contributing to a social climate in which disability is misunderstood. I based my knowledge of disability on stereotypes rather than learning from the voices of disabled people and thinking critically about the oppression they face.

When I got AS, I was introduced to a life of chronic pain and became an insider in the world of disability. I faced new barriers and experienced disability stigma first-hand. I learned that disabled bodies are devalued, that misconceptions about disability harm disabled people, and that discrimination is alive and well even in today’s progressive society. I also learned ways that I can be more inclusive and supportive to other disabled people. I realize now, at 21 years old, how ignorant I was before. If it weren’t for AS, I might have lived in ignorance for the rest of my life.

People can be ignorant

Unfortunately, I see a lot of people still living in ignorance. They understand disability only on a surface level and hold beliefs that support oppression. But it doesn’t take becoming disabled to understand disability — all it takes is a choice: to continue living in ignorance or to learn. Since developing AS, I’ve encountered people who choose to live in ignorance, and I don’t keep those people in my life. The rest of the people I’ve encountered fall into the second group — the ones who choose to learn. Even though they are not disabled, they educate themselves, ask about my disability, and change their perspectives. They make an effort to learn about disability and the surrounding issues, which makes a difference not only for me but for the wider disabled community.

I wish I had been more aware of disability issues for the first 18 years of my life, but one silver lining of getting AS is that I have gained insight which I can share with others. I remember what it was like to be able-bodied, living in a world built for able-bodied people, with no reason to care about disability — but now I believe it’s important for people of all abilities to care and understand. Disability is a complex topic and learning about it may require shifting your thoughts and opinions, which can be difficult. But if you choose to live in ignorance, you are choosing to disregard 15% of the world’s population. Take a few minutes and find it in yourself to learn.

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