By Mark E. Smith

I saw an on-line correspondence by someone I’ve met in-person, and the individual was describing “their” own disability. What caught my attention was that the individual’s description of their disability seemed exaggerated beyond belief. I was so struck by the individual’s seemingly exaggeration of their disability that I called a mutual acquaintance who confirmed that, indeed, the description was dramatically exaggerated – leaving us both wondering why the individual would make their disability out to be far more physically severe than it actually was? I mean, if one were a paraplegic with full use of one’s arms, why would one clearly lead others to believe that one was a quadriplegic with virtually no use of one’s arms?

Of course, in the spectrum of disability, this wasn’t the first time that I’ve witnessed someone exaggerate the physical facts of one’s disability, describing one’s disability as medically far more severe than it truly is. And, I’m always left with the question, Why do some wish to make themselves out to seem more physically disabled than they are? To be really blunt, How dysfunctional do you have to be to seemingly wish to be more disabled among your peers than you really are?

When I was working at a college years ago, a colleague of mine and I were sitting in my office one evening talking about minority-based literature. And, specifically, we discussed how there is a “hierarchy of hardship” in western culture, where the tougher one’s plight in life, the more respect one earns from others. In today’s world, we see this in the rap music industry, where street thugs like 50 Cent, who began dealing drugs at age 12, are idolized with “street cred” in their music careers, whereas rapper, Rick Ross, lost much of his following when it came out that contrary to his “thug-filled” lyrics, he’d actually worked as a prison corrections officer. Likewise, as my colleague and I discussed, there is a certain “street cred” to disability, where the bigger your physical challenges, the higher up in the disability hierarchy you may be seen.

In this way, there is some merit to the thought that those who exaggerate their disabilities are looking to up their street cred within the disability community, so to speak. However, there’s also a much deeper, self-defeating aspect to those who exaggerate the extent of their physical disabilities: They’re trying to convince themselves of reasons why they’re struggling with self-acceptance and a lack of success in life.

Unfortunately, due to remaining stereotypes, severity of disability still gets us off of the hook in many parts of life. The reason why the media still makes a big deal about a student with a severe disability graduating college, for example, is because our culture places lower expectations on those with disabilities – and, as it works, the more severe the disability, the lower the expectations. If you have a severe disability and you succeed, you’re heroic; but, if you have a sever disability and do nothing, that’s fine, as well – after all, those with disabilities can’t be expected to live up to mainstream standards, as their plights are already harrowing enough, or so implies mainstream stereotypes.

Now, with that principle in mind, if you’re one with a disability who’s struggling with self-acceptance and not willing to put forth extreme efforts to succeed, what’s the easiest way to justify your complacent path in life?

By convincing yourself that you’re far more disabled than you really are, of course! Really, it’s a brilliant – albeit, self-defeating – strategy that actually works. If you can convince yourself – and, ideally, those close to you who don’t know any better, as with family members – that you’re too disabled to have a healthy emotional life, attend college, work, or care for yourself, then you’re off of the hook. All shame is removed from the equation because, as you’ve convinced yourself, you’re a victim in all this – that is, the severity of your disability.

However, here are the two fatal flaws when you invest in such a dysfunctional coping mechanism: Firstly, your peers with disabilities label you as a fool who no one takes seriously, and, secondly, convincing yourself that you’re more severely disabled than you are ruins your life!

You might get by convincing family, friends, and the mainstream that your disability is the worst fate on Earth (because they can still be manipulated). But, it never flies within the disability community, where those with truly the most severe disabilities will look at you and laugh, rolling away, writing you off as a “tool.” I’ve seen it countless times, where there are, say, a table full of successful individuals with medically-defined severe disabilities, and someone of notably less physical severity will join the party, and start going on and on about how disabled he or she is, only to have all others label it as a pathetic attempt for attention or as a scapegoat for shortcomings in life compared to others.

I was sitting in a hotel lounge after working an Abilities Expo once, and a paraplegic was at our table going on and on about how disabled he was, how the world was doing him wrong. With us was a young lady with muscular dystrophy, on a ventilator, with no use of her arms, and she had a career as a social worker. As the gentleman went on and on about how terrible his life was with a disability, the young lady suddenly said, “I’ll bet you $5 that you can’t pick up that glass that’s in front of you.”

The gentleman didn’t think twice, simply picking up the glass. The young lady smiled, and said, “Man, when you can pick up a glass, you’re right, you must have it tougher than many of us in life. Reach in my backpack, and grab $5 out of my wallet – you clearly need it more than the rest of us.”

Again, you can exaggerate your disability in culture at large, but it will make you a fool among your peers with disabilities.

Nevertheless, in the grand scheme of life, looking foolish among peers isn’t nearly as consequential as convincing yourself that disability effects your life more than it should. The minute that you create any false limitations in your life, the only one that’s ultimately harmed is you. Make every excuse in the world why your life is a horrible plight – including exaggerating disability – but it doesn’t change the fact that you’re the one removing yourself from the game, you’re dictating your own limitations toward success.

So, if you find yourself feeling like your disability is the worst plight ever, making it more severe than it is, how do you change that self-destructive mindset?

The answer is strikingly simple: Stop dwelling on your disability, and start focusing on your abilities. Sure, it takes accountability, where you say, I’m responsible for the outcomes in my life, and my disability doesn’t void my remaining abilities, whatever they may be. Value your abilities, and use them to their fullest – never complaining, but always thankful – and your life will go in directions that you never dreamed.

Of course, there’s never any thought among my successful friends as to who has the severest physical disability. Sure, we all have varying degrees of physical disabilities, where a clinical observation might deem quadriplegia more severe than a below-the-knee amputation. However, when we’re each focused on living life to our fullest potentials, no one is more or less disabled than the next person – we’re all simply on a level playing field, living our best.

Comments
  1. Jstlookn says:

    Loved this, Mark. Fools that attempt to control others with the pity factor must not be aware of the story, “The Little Boy Who Cried Wolf”. After a while, no one listens or really cares any more. Such a waste of a life.

  2. Marcy Ryan says:

    Great explanation of waste, are we victim’s or volunteers!!?? I am disabled not dead! Use what you have and be respected for it, don’t and be neglected for it. Respect is not gained by the pity me attitude you need to earn it.

  3. Dawn says:

    Hi Mark!
    Great post! I am not a “woe is me” kind of person. I don’t like giving up what I can do. I have nemaline myopathy, a form of muscular dystrophy. It’s degenerative but I keep fighting it. I don’t like not being able to do what I’ve always been able to do. So I use all the resources available to me to keep doing what I want. I’m smart, I don’t have any intellectual disabilities, so I went to college and worked hard. I’m having a hard time finding a job so I’m going back for another degree. To everyone who says “life is too hard, I’m too disabled”, it’s all mindset. I know people worse off than me who work, go to school, etc. So no excuses! But mind you, I do know some people just can’t work/go to school because they have medical problems associated with their disability. I say to them, Just do your best every day. Live your life to the fullest!
    Have a great day, Mark!

  4. Ed says:

    Hi Mark,

    Good post!

    MS has been very aggressively progressing, steeling not only how my body functions, but more so from my family. I have a tendency of hiding symptoms for as long as I can because of how it affects people around me when they become very visible. I would give anything to spare them. The good thing is we are learning together how to adjust, sometimes daily. Learning new ways to live life together.

    I hope everyone has a great day.

  5. Wheelie says:

    Corvettes, used to be for the rich. Today there are a lot of used Corvettes of various years, shaped and conditions. Some people will over extend themselves to purchase a wrecked Corvette, just so they can tell others that they own a “Corvette.” I believe the same has happen with scooters and wheelchairs too. A used scooter can be purchased for a few dollars and suddently one is “disAbled.” I know it doesn’t happen that often, and I for one can’t tell how often it does occur. I just know it happens. For being in a used wheelchair or used scooter often gets the same priviliges at restaurants and shows, besides the grocery store as well. I’m always looking for a miracle when I see someone get out of a mobile product to take something off the top shelf and then return. I’m often tempted to ask, but wise enough not to.
    Personally, I’d take a used Corvette over a New Wheelchair anyday.

    • Dawn says:

      I have nemaline myopathy (a form of muscular dystrophy) and I can stand. It took almost a year of physical therapy for me to stand and reach for something. So yes, I can stand up from my powerchair and reach something on a shelf in a store, mind you, not the top shelf, but still. It doesn’t look elegant by any means but I can do it and I’m proud that I still can. I don’t like having to ask a store associate to shop with me if I can reach almost everything from my wheelchair and only have to stand once or twice. It takes away from my independence. So please don’t assume that everyone who gets up from their wheelchair in public is faking or playing up their disability. Mine is severe. I’m on a vent and eat pureed food/drink Boost. I can’t walk. But I can stand.
      Many people who use wheelchairs still stand and walk. Some people use wheelchairs only out of their houses because they can’t walk long distances, have a balance problem (my friend has that prob from a brain injury), or they have some type of medical problem that warrant it.
      Usually one can pick out the fakers but not everyone is the same. Worry about yourself and forget those losers who fake it!
      Sorry if I sounded mean. I’m not trying to be. I wanted to show you the other side to the story.

      • Azu says:

        What an amazing film! It sulohd be required watching for all parents and carers of people with learning disabilities, and for people with learning disabilities. So much untapped potential that employers and communities are missing out on.

  6. Jennifer Fitz says:

    Wheelie, I wouldn’t jump to conclusions on the fairly able-bodied users of scooters and wheelchairs. There’s a mighty long list of conditions that can limit one’s ability to walk, but not completely eliminate it. Under those circumstances, btw, second-hand products are a tremendous help — usually insurance won’t cover nor doctors prescribe, because there is this widespread belief that groceries will magically appear in your cupboards, if only the doctor says “don’t walk on it for a month”.

    ***
    Not speaking to Mark’s acquaintance’s situation, on which I’m ignorant. But hey, why not ask the person with the mystery ailment? They might have an interesting story to tell.

  7. Ant says:

    I had a similar kind of experience while waiting in neonatal to visit my baby. Someone sat next to me and we got chatting, and he was telling me how terrible it was that his child had been in for 3 weeks and that they’d needed to be ventilated for a couple of days after birth, and how was my child? 4 months and three operations down, still on O2 and waiting for another op thanks 🙂 He took it quite graciously – I guess it’s all relative how you feel about your own problems.

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