I have a disability

Ava Dawson (’24) writes about her personal experience with disability and the impacts on identity. “I now know disability is not a weakness because living with one takes incredible strength.”

Up until a couple of years ago, I never viewed myself as being disabled; although my condition had its implications and hindrances on my life, I never thought of it in that light. I was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at 9 years old and have had to learn how to cope with and grow with the disease. To begin, a quick explanation: Type 1 diabetes is commonly diagnosed during juvenile years (hence why it was previously known as juvenile diabetes). It develops when the beta cells of an individual–for unknown reasons–begin attacking one’s pancreas, an organ that produces a hormone called insulin. Without this insulin, the amount of sugar in one’s blood is not properly regulated; If left untreated, it leads to death. Before the discovery of insulin in the 1920s, Type 1 diabetes was a terminal disease. 

I rely on insulin to keep me alive each and every day, something I hadn’t really thought twice about until a couple of years ago. I came across an article by a young woman named Lauren Salko, a professional skier and Type 1 diabetic. This is what changed my perspective. 

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, a disability is, “A person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities or a person who has a history or record of such an impairment.” Every day I rely on an extrinsic insulin source–an insulin pump–to convert the glucose I consume into usable energy because my pancreas no longer functions as it should. In 2008, the ADA Amendments Act included Type 1 diabetes as a disability–it protects Type 1 diabetics in public schools or other publicly sanctioned places which provide them with a 504 or other needed accommodations. 

While on paper the definition is clear, society views disability by a single, unmalleable standard. I’ve had some say to me they hope I don’t view my condition as a disability: it wasn’t until afterwards that I saw the flaw with this statement. I don’t “view” my condition as being a disability, it is a disability. That’s just the reality of it. 

People mean one of two things when they say this: that my condition is not a “real” disability, or that while they acknowledge I have a disability, their hope is that it doesn’t limit my goals or aspirations. Many able-bodied people think disability must contain a physical aspect that is obvious, such as a wheelchair or an amputated limb. This couldn’t be further from the truth, disabilities are diverse; my condition, though not obvious, impacts my life constantly. It’s with me every time I eat, and often when I haven’t– keeping my blood sugar in range is an incessant task. I must constantly contend with my condition. However, it doesn’t limit my goals or aspirations in any way. For the most part, disabled people choose to overcome their condition in order to live how they want to live. 

I myself was shocked and somewhat confused to find that I logistically had a disability. I didn’t fit the stereotypes. I don’t need a handicapped parking spot, or to use an elevator to be mobile around my school. Notably, I don’t let Type 1 limit me. Too often, people see disability as analogous with hopelessness and despair when, really, one of the best things is seeing yourself overcome the challenges. For me, that means being able to go on a 5 mile hike in the Smoky Mountains without getting a low blood sugar, biking 15 miles on a hot summer’s day–chugging apple juice to keep myself conscious, or going out to dinner with friends and guessing the carb count, knowing that I can fix it later. 

I too fell into the trap of stereotypical thinking about disabilities, and it made it harder to recognize my own condition as a disability. I now know disability is not a weakness because living with one takes incredible strength. 

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