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.