Disabled, Poor, and Proud

The title of this blog is optimistic. Pride in myself is something for which I’m striving. I want to share about the problematic aspects of nurturing pride while poor and disabled, from my perspective.

People with oppressed identities struggle for pride in a society and culture that sends them all kinds of invalidating messages. For example, not being represented in entertainment, media, many professions and positions of power, neighborhoods, higher education, and drug and alcohol recovery clinics as opposed to prison; while being overrepresented in the prison system, police scrutiny and brutality and shooting deaths, homelessness, and victimization for rape and violent crime. There are also a lot of double-standard restrictions on their personal appearance and words and expression and behavior—like hairstyles, expressions of anger, manner of speech and word choice. Think about how we portray and what we discourage and deride in women, from people of color, and LGBTQIA-identified people in these areas, as opposed to what we discourage and deride from white cis hetero men.

Self-esteem, and insisting on better representation and treatment externally, is important. Pride in one’s identity and the very differences that have been targeted for hate, like hair texture, skin color, gender appearance, sexual and romantic attractions and partnerships, clothing styles, culture and traditions are important. It’s why we have gay pride parades and days and celebrations, Black History Month, and Take Back the Night events.

I struggle with finding pride in myself, and nurturing self-respect. Disability does limit me in many real ways that are equated directly with value and worth in this consumerist culture and society. If a person is not able to work and support themselves financially, the best they can hope for is pity. Which is not a representation of respect and equal relationship footing. Pity inherently carries the attitude of being more fortunate or better than the person one is feeling pity for, even if that’s unconscious.

More often, people who can’t work and have to make choices others condemn in order to survive are the butt of jokes, the subject of hate and injustice, and don’t have access to social support, communities, legal support, or even basic needs like shelter, food, and health care. The legislators, institutions, and gatekeepers of these needs aren’t in our position and are unable to actually experience what it is like for us, or feel the consequences of their decisions and choices that we have to live with.

Getting to Know You

Often the first question that gets asked when people meet is some variant of “What do you do for a living?” This and the American Dream are two examples of things we’ve all been socialized with that are actually classist, and ableist as well. They represent a system of values based on financial worth.

Everything about the early ‘getting to know you’ part of socializing is problematic for me, because while for the person asking these may be superficial things, my true answers are actually way more personal than is okay and comfortable for either of us to get into when we’ve only just met. These are things that have made me a target for mistreatment and at the very least leave me open to a lot of unconscious microaggressions and socialized systemic discrimination. Where I live, where I come from, whether my family lives around here, what I do, where I went to school, if I’m married, if I have kids—all these things are problematic, and not things I want to talk about with someone I just met, or sometimes anyone other than my therapist.

I love as an alternative getting-to-know-you question, “What are you into right now?” I feel this is far more likely to tell me about the person I have in front of me, rather than focusing on their demographics or history or family, which are things that are problematic for a lot of people. But I’ve noticed often when I ask that, people get uncomfortable and then answer as if I’d asked what they do for a living, indicating this part of socializing is entirely unconscious and pre-scripted, and my sinking feeling was—what’s the point?

The people I’ve loved best weren’t defined by where they came from, lived, what they did for a living, whether or not they were married, or where they went to school (or not—this is an elitist and often classist question). However a lot of people I meet are defined by whether or not they have children in a very real way, although in different ways.

Self-Disclosure and Coming Out as Invisibly Disabled

When I tell people in person I’m disabled, I don’t ever want to tell someone face-to-face my diagnosis. It’s really none of anyone’s business but mine and my doctor’s. I will talk about it here, because I can do it in depth and know that there’s inherently more time spent processing what someone reads than what they hear in conversation, but face to face? Nope.

There are a lot of reasons for this. First of all, in many situations concerning access, it’s illegal to insist someone disclose their specific disability—like when someone brings a clearly identified companion animal into a restaurant or hotel. Medical privacy is something that’s in short supply when you’re disabled and poor, as I well know. Secondly, I am absolutely done with the arrogance and passive-aggressiveness that is unsolicited advice (but that’s another story and shall be told at another time). Thirdly, and maybe this should have been firstly, it’s really none of anyone else’s business. This person I just met is not part of my treatment team nor Social Security Disability. I can disclose my limitations and needs without a person having to know my diagnosis and expect respect for those things as well as my privacy.

I think people automatically ask follow-up questions when confronted with differences, as if my stating my differences signals my consent to be interrogated and expected to educate the person I’m talking to, without really asking themselves if what they’re asking is any of their business. This puts the burden on me to grit my teeth and tell them, as nicely as possible, to back off. Having to do this all the time becomes infuriating after a while, honestly.

Encountering differences, especially on the privilege spectrum (e.g. having to do with gender, sexuality, race, nationality, religion, age, ability, class, language), should signal all of us to turn off auto-respond, slow down, and really think about what we say and do and ask. It’s way too easy to sail right past the boundaries of what’s appropriate and ask questions like a two-year-old, without considering how aggressive that scrutiny feels from someone who has more power in society and culture than the target. It really does, believe me.

So be chill, even if you don’t feel chill. Curb your curiosity a bit and let the person who’s less privileged take the lead in the conversation about those differences. That’s a good way to use one’s privilege to support the less-privileged—knowing when to stop talking and asking and just listen.

Proud AND Disabled AND Poor, Not in Spite of; Whole-Person Pride

I don’t want to be proud of my disabled status or my economic status as they are. I wish I could be able-bodied and financially secure. But I also don’t want to be ashamed of these things or made to feel ashamed, or like I have to split those things off and be proud in spite of them. I want my love of myself to reflect the respect and love I want for others—loving the whole me, with nothing left out or given less love. Especially when those places where I’ve felt shame and been shamed need more love, not less.

I want to be proud of who I am and what I’ve accomplished with these limitations, how creative I’ve been, how self-motivated and self-educated I’ve become, and the strengths that I possess. I don’t want to disown my ability or hide my poverty, or allow other people to look down on me or treat me as less because of those things. In order for me to be a whole, proud, self-loving person I want to own these things and say, yes, I’m disabled, yes, I’m poor, yes, I’m doing the best I can and what I can do is pretty damn amazing considering everything I have been through and continue to endure every day.

This is obviously going to take a lot of work. The more out I am about these things the more I experience microaggressions, pity, the nastiness that is unsolicited advice (but that’s another story and will be told at another time), and cultural and interpersonal messaging that tries to reinforce the shame and insecurities I’m trying to overcome.

One thing I read which I find abundantly true is that because we get external tangible invalidation, we also need external tangible validation. It’s not enough for me to validate myself if the people and situations around me are all invalidating. It’s not enough for me to take pride in who I am as a person and what I’ve survived and continue to accomplish if people around me look down on me, even in a sympathetic way. I want people who are proud of those things with me, proud of me and accepting of all of me, and understanding that these uncomfortable realities are beyond our power to fix—and that I as a person don’t need to be ‘fixed’ or ‘rescued’ but to be heard and empowered to improve my situation as much as I can.

Eventually I’ll talk more about friendship and allies, my experiences and what helps and what doesn’t. I think it’s important for me to clarify those things for myself, just as much as articulating them to others, so I stop settling for less than I need and getting hurt in the process.

To close, I want to share Alain de Botton’s wonderful TED Talk on this subject that I think could uplift self-esteem for all of us living with the reality of money, whatever your status.

A kinder, gentler philosophy of success

One Comment

  1. You articulate important things so well. It’s so good to have people out there, saying these things. Thank you.

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