Children, teens, and young adults with disabilities deserve to be accepted, loved, and supported by their parents and extended family. It is not always the case, and sometimes, it can lead to physical and emotional abuse.
Some people believe that if a family member with a disability requires extra help, they can say whatever they want to them and take advantage of them. I have moderate cerebral palsy due to a brain injury at birth. It affects the muscles and bones of my lower extremities. I have minor fine motor skill issues and a minor speech difference. My intellectual ability is not affected. I have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease as well as a hormone condition. I did not receive unconditional support from all my relatives.
All these medical conditions, along with my childhood challenges, make it difficult for me to control my
emotions around challenging people. Some of the most common microaggressions that I experience include people treating me as a child, even though I am a grown adult. People may belittle my need for my mobility devices.
Many people may limit my potential as a woman with a disability. When I defend myself, armchair advisors suggest I like to “pick fights,” which is a form of gaslighting. A few family members believe that people with disabilities are burdens, and that is why most people with disabilities never have true friends. Everyone who befriends them has a personal agenda.
These same relatives also believe that no one with a disability could be romantically loved and cared for
by a non-disabled person. Our lives are too complicated to be understood on an intimate level. When I defend myself and advocate for my peers in the disability community, I am only standing up for what I think is fair in terms of human rights, as my parents, close friends, and genuine family have taught me to do at an early age.
I’m indebted to the help of doctors, therapists, teachers, and my parents, who helped me reach my full potential and graduate with a degree in nutrition and dietetics from Dominican University. I am a fervent disability advocate, food access advocate, and mental health advocate. My personal and professional experience helps peers with disabilities understand that they can live a healthier, happier, and more confident life.
I use forearm crutches, a push wheelchair for longer distances, a snazzy cranberry rollator, and orthotics to navigate the world around me. It has been a challenge to accept my disability. Growing up, I felt like an outsider among a few relatives.
Relatives Can Be Outsiders
Some relatives never seemed to understand or wanted to understand me because we only saw each other every few years. They never brought me into family conversations when I was younger or as an adult. Furthermore, these relatives never seemed to respect my thoughts on specific social or political topics.
They never tried to empathize with my unique path of childhood and adulthood as a woman with a disability compared to my neurotypical and non-disabled cousins. A few family members would force me out of my wheelchair, not allowing me to use my walker, crutches, or wheelchair. They wanted to accomplish the “perfect” family photo.
These comments and actions hurt and confused me because many peers and friends with disabilities seem to have unwavering support from their parents and all members of their extended family. As I have grown, changed, and matured, these relatives have not. They still treat me like a child because I still live with my parents due to financial and health issues.
As a result of health issues, I still have not traveled the typical path through adulthood of driving, living on my own, working a full-time job, and building a solid career. It was not because of my lack of trying. Some of these relatives do not think I have done an excellent job of separating my social identity from my parents. They believed my parents were toxic to me and had an overprotective relationship with them because I still required so much help from them.
This is far from the truth. I manage my medical concerns, have different friends, have gone to professional conferences, and am creating a solid public speaker and writing career. The lasting impact of having hostile relatives forced me to rely much more on my Midwest relatives for emotional support because they genuinely accepted most parts of my life story.
Supportive Relatives in My Life
My dad’s brother, for example, had been there every step of the way for my childhood. He helped me with science and math homework as a chemistry major in college. My uncle helped me practice skills that I learned in physical therapy. He always had a kind word to say when I had a rough day. He and I loved going out for our weekly meals at a local diner when I became an adult. We did that until the day he died last year, in the summer.
My paternal grandmother always reminded me of the importance of supporting friends in ways I am physically capable of at various life stages. She taught me that the best thing I could do as a friend is to be an encourager to someone having a hardship in their life. Focus on asking questions to get to know people better was one of her best lessons.
One of my dad’s cousins was an occupational therapist who taught children, teens, and adults with physical disabilities how to be more creative as they worked towards independent living. It used to be a blessing to have her as a mentor.
The maternal grandmother and grandfather attempted to be supportive and encouraging. They gave us medical advice since my grandfather was an orthopedic surgeon. They even offered financial assistance a few times when medical expenses were too high. My maternal grandmother always loved to hear about my childhood and young adulthood adventures.
Family Is Family?
I learned from my mother and father that family is family. You can either feel blessed or cursed. Unsupportive relatives have me more gracious and forgiving with impolite comments from new people in my social circle. I am very cautious of those with whom I am vulnerable in my new, more confident adulthood. Even though I’m more self-assured as an adult, I’m sometimes particular about the first impression I leave with people.
I’ve learned that not everyone will understand my story. Still, it is crucial to be tactful and lenient, take every social situation at face value, and not judge them based on another similar situation. I may be the first person with a physical disability that someone has met. Especially if they grew up in an area with less diversity. I try my best to show a positive side to living with a physical disability to win over more supporters. I appreciate my dearest friends, mentors, and family’s unconditional support.
I’ve realized that individuals who have experienced hardships in their self-acceptance journey have a unique level of kindness and empathy. Author Sean Stephenson promoted a crucial friendship principle that I carry with me. He suggested that Category A friends are the ones with whom people can share triumphs and adversity without receiving adverse reactions like jealousy or pity. Category B is the ones you gravitate to for surface-level conversations—the group of people who might not know all the ups and downs you have in life. The friends you have drinks or a meal with for a friendly conversation. This is the group of people who are your project collaborators, mentees, and mentors. C friends are the surface acquaintances with whom I may be concerned that I am a topic of gossip.
Friends To Keep
My personal experience has taught me that I should be most emotionally exposed to people who do not try to change me while protecting my life story thus far. High-quality friends are vital for an individual’s self-worth. Living with a disability is multi-faceted. I appreciate invitations to social events to impact the world through activism for people with disabilities and other social concerns that focus on human rights. Helping others has boosted my self-assurance, so I do not feel like I am the only one who
sometimes needs assistance.
I was most accepted and poised in social situations when people invited me to accessible locations. Accessibility leads to more freedom and more remarkable personal composure for an individual. The wrong people will consider asking about accessibility to be high maintenance.
Quality friends have supported me in exploring adaptive cooking with adaptive tools, creating my career path, learning to do my laundry, and attending professional conferences. My quality friends have allowed me to find a suitable level of independence at my speed.
My parents nurtured my self esteem since childhood. They gave me new experiences like an accessible overnight camp, church retreats to grow in my Christian faith, and an adaptive sports camp. My faith gave me confidence in my personal story. I’m blessed with genuine friends and family members, my parents, and mentors who allow me to make my own life decisions without passing judgment, except when my safety is in question.
Young adults with disabilities become more assured in their decision-making skills when their family believes in their decisions. My parents trusted me to make career, medical, and independent living decisions. It is best to make choices that will enable you to have the best, most positive life.
Tracy Williams has a degree in Nutrition and Dietetics from Dominican University. She is a freelance writer, public speaker, disability advocate, food access advocate, and mental health advocate. She enjoys doing webinars for groups of dietitians who want to be more empathetic in their nutrition counseling skills when interacting with people who have various disabilities. You can connect with her from her website, Tracy Williams
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