Last updated: January 2022

I recently decided to take the plunge and start attempting to file for disability. I live in America so I know, going in, that this is likely to be quite a process. But today, I wanted to talk about something that, oddly enough, only recently occurred to me as a word that would describe me - disabled.

I’ve had rheumatoid arthritis and a plethora of other autoimmune conditions for years now. And I have no idea why, but that term - disabled - has never once crossed my mind in its relevance to me. I don’t know. Maybe it is willful ignorance?

So what does disabled mean?

Merriam-Webster defines disabled as "impaired or limited by a physical, mental, cognitive, or developmental condition."1

Honestly, I’m actually fascinated at how such a seemingly simple definition can have such widespread connotations, associations, interpretations, and implications. (Wow! Say that 3 times fast!)

Mental health implications

The terms disabled and disability come with many implications on our mental health alone.

In a perfect world, we would all be "whole" individuals who looked at the word just for what it is - a label identifying people who, for whatever reason, can’t do what most others can do. For example, I can’t go to work today because my body is too busy eating itself.

But let’s face it, we aren’t robots, and living with a term like disabled brings with it many feelings; these feelings drive so much of what we think about ourselves that it becomes difficult to separate the two.

Social implications

Unfortunately, way too many of us know what many of the social implications of being disabled mean in a world that feels like it is constantly seeking to attack and find fault with, especially concerning things that many know nothing about.

Look at all the terrible stories about the use of a simple handicapped placard alone. Somehow, because we are less able to work in the traditional sense, we are therefore less valuable as citizens and people.

Managing what it mean to live with a disability

So what do we do? What strategies do we use to help manage some of the social and mental health implications of being described as disabled?

Give it some time

If you are new to kicking around the term disabled (like me), give yourself some time to process and really come to terms with the idea.

For example, it has been a few weeks since I actually looked in the mirror and really identified myself as disabled.

Consider counseling

If you haven’t been to a mental health professional yet in your RD journey, now might be the time - particularly if you find that, after a month of confronting the term, you are still struggling. Many people with rheumatoid disease and many autoimmune diseases face unique challenges because of flares and medication cycles.

Meditate, journal, pray

All 3 of these give you the space to process all the feelings you might face so that, in the end, it is easier to accept that it is just a term, like so many others we use, to describe just a small piece of ourselves. Feel free to use these techniques to be angry. Write every thought that comes into your head.

In fact, I found that I really enjoyed 1 particular activity where I wrote down all of the negative things that I associated with the term disabled on a sheet of paper. Every single 1 that came to mind I scribbled furiously on a sheet of paper. I even did it in a really graphic manner, using different handwriting styles and lettering.

Anyway, when I was finished, I tore the sheet off my pad and crumpled it up with all of the anger I could muster from my aching hands. Then I tossed it right in the trash and told myself that disabled could mean anything I chose for it to mean.

It was just a label - not a definition of who I am.

And that was that.

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