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Living Why having a mental illness makes you a person with a disability

Oct. 11, 2017
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I consider myself a person with a disability. First of all, please note that I referred to myself as a “person with a disability” and not a “disabled person”. This is a matter of personal preference, to be determined by those within the disability community; many members of the community consider their disability to be an integral part of their identity and prefer to be called a “disabled person”. However, I—like many others in the disability community—consider the term “disabled person” to be stigmatizing: I do not wish my entire identity to be defined by my disability.  

Now, many people would disagree with my choice to call myself a person with a disability because I do not have a physical impairment of any kind—but I do have a mental one. I have bipolar disorder with symptoms of psychosis, meaning that I experience all the normal symptoms of bipolar disorder and additionally experience disconnections from reality at times. It’s pretty fucking disabling, if I do say so myself. However, a majority of people would not classify me (or other people with mental illnesses) as people with disabilities because our impairments are not physically visible. As such, we do not experience the outward discrimination and isolation that comes with having an impairment that is visible to the naked eye. In fact, many people with mental illnesses do not even consider themselves to be people with disabilities. I believe this reluctance is in large part due to the fact that many people have a very narrow understanding of what disability is.

A majority of people associate disability with physical impairments, but having an impairment that is publicly visible is not the only condition used to define disability. In fact, there is no singular definition of disability. There are several models, each of them ever-evolving to adapt to the constant changes taking place across society, culture, politics, and medicine. However, regardless of the differences between the various models, each of them are based on the relationship between impairment, disability, and handicap. Impairment is defined as any loss or abnormality of psychological, physiological, or anatomical structure or function. Disability is defined as any restriction or lack of ability (resulting from an impairment) to perform an activity in the manner or within the range considered normal for a human being. And handicap is defined as a disadvantage for a given individual, resulting from an impairment or disability that limits or prevents the fulfillment of a role that is “normal” for that individual, according to age, gender, social, and cultural factors. 

To wit: according to the World Health Organization, if a person is born blind, their blindness would be the impairment; their inability to read printed material, which is how most information is disseminated, would be the disability; and if they were prevented from attending school or applying to a job because of their impairment or disability, that would be the handicap. 

Disability theorists base their models of what disability is off of these intertwining concepts. The most widely agreed-upon definition states that disability is an evolving concept, and that it results from the interaction between persons with impairments and attitudinal and environmental barriers that hinders their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others. In other words, disability is not the physical impairment itself—it’s the restrictions that society imposes on people with those impairments, as well as the restrictions that an individual may impose on oneself because of the impairment. 

In light of this widely-held definition for disability, it is clear that mental illness falls well under its purview. The majority of the restrictions and barriers we experience may not be imposed upon us by our physical environment or by society, but that does not mean they do not exist at all. They are mostly imposed upon us by our illness and by ourselves. This makes our disability much harder to define and much harder to prove, considering that there are many different types of mental illnesses, all of which affect those who have them differently.  

For example, it is easy to see how a person in a wheelchair experiences disability as a result of their impairment. They cannot walk, run, enter certain buildings, use stairs, or navigate many spaces not explicitly designed to accommodate wheelchair use. It is not as easy to see how a person with bipolar disorder is disabled by their impairment. I hear voices, which makes it very hard to concentrate, do my work, interact with other people, and even maintain my composure in public. However, this is not seen or comprehended by others, because these disabilities are imposed upon by my illness itself and not by society. This is true for a majority of mental illnesses. I believe this is the reason why many people do not consider us to be people with disabilities. 

But our exclusion from the categorization of persons with disabilities is actually quite harmful for several reasons. For one thing, there’s the shame that people with mental illnesses feel for not being able to participate in society with the ease of their mentally healthy or abled counterparts. The barriers and restrictions they experience because of their impairment are not recognized as disabling, leaving them to feel like their pain and struggles are not legitimate. This feeling of shame and uncertainty can prevent many people with mental illnesses from seeking out treatment or help because they feel as though they shouldn’t have to. Additionally, not recognizing people with mental illnesses as people with disabilities only acts to further the stigma around mental illness because it downplays the severity of these conditions. 

I purposely choose to call myself a person with a disability because I want people to comprehend the severity of my condition and of mental conditions in general. If we are to ever expect our societal systems to change and adapt to include us, we need them to recognize us first.