THE BLOG

4 Unfair Perceptions of People With Disabilities or Illnesses

02/18/2015 05:22 pm ET | Updated Apr 20, 2015
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Some perceptions of disability and illness are too messed up and extreme for my liking. Persons living with these conditions are seen as really good or really bad, but there never seems to be a middle ground. This means that disability/illness status is used to judge our characters. Without further ado, here's the "good" and the "bad" of disability/illness perceptions.

Disclaimer: I have a chronic illness that is a disability, so I am lumping the two terms together, but they are not necessarily the same.

The Good:

Persons living with disabilities (PwDs)/illnesses are saints. We've all seen the images in the movies: an angelic-looking patient resting demurely in their hospital bed, talking about how, despite their illness/disability, they are so very thankful that they have been able to live this life. These images often are used to express an inherent goodness in the ill character, as if they take on the burden of their disease/disability with a grace and inner strength that healthy people could never have. Only the truly good people are stricken by illness, and they rise to the occasion with an inhuman courage and patience.

Sorry, but this is bulls**t. A person's morality has absolutely no correlation to their status as ill/disabled. We PwDs/illnesses can be as irritating, unreasonable, nagging, and idiotic as any "healthy" human being. It is such a flattering idea that we are somehow saints because we have difficult obstacles, and sometimes we truly can be strong and brave (though it shouldn't be required). However, most of us do not always feel thankful for having to suffer due to something in our bodies going wrong, and even if someone appreciates their life with all of its challenges, this attitude slips on a bad day when the nurse can't put the IV in on the fourth needle stick and you are holding back unjustified curses. Or when the paperwork isn't ready for you to be discharged from the hospital before tomorrow and you threaten to walk out immediately, hospital gown and all.

God has a plan. I can guarantee you that all persons with illnesses/disabilities have been told this more than once. Someone with strong faith and a belief that everything happens for a reason tells us that it will work out because God has a plan, or our suffering will be rewarded in the afterlife. Some people may truly believe this, and props to them for finding a good way to spin a bad situation.

As an agnostic, I do not believe that prayer chains, although well-meaning, will be more effective than my extremely costly, scientifically-proven medical treatments. I really wish they were, because prayer feels like it's worth a shot when the painkillers don't work and you just want a break. However, it is infuriating to be told that my medical situation is somehow a blessing or part of a plan, because I would never want to put my faith in a higher power that deliberately puts me through the torture of intestinal blockages and osteomyelitis. I prefer to believe that these problems are due to my own dysfunctional body, because so far, the only plan I see is to develop a side-hobby of experiencing life-threatening complications every summer (seriously, why do these things always happen in the vacation months?).

The Bad:

PwDs/illnesses are lazy and entitled. It's true that medical problems make life hard. Disability payments take up a massive part of the federal budget, and in 2013, 11 million Americans were recipients of these payments. Less than 20 percent of Americans with disabilities are employed. However, like most human beings, PwDs/illnesses want to lead normal, fulfilling lives, not live off disability. Unfortunately, there are a number of barriers to employment, both personal and institutionalized.

As I have discussed at length, disability discrimination is rampant in the workplace, from the existence of stereotyping and prejudice in the office, to gut feelings that a rejection from a job was based on a person's disability but disguised as something else. These barriers only complicate the fact that working with a disability/illness in the first place can be difficult due to the legitimate physical limits that a person feels from their disability/illness, from fatigue, to needs for frequent treatment, to issues with mobility. However, many of these people work twice as hard to overcome these challenges, and many are speaking up about disability discrimination in the workplace. These acts take patience, courage, and resilience, as they do not always work out. Especially in this respect, PwDs/illnesses are showing that they are not lazy and entitled, but that they are working for what they want.

Healthy lifestyle is a factor of desirability. I've heard this comment before, especially in the context of dating: "I want someone who is healthy." "Healthy" seems like an innocuous trait to include as a factor of attractiveness, because someone who has a healthy lifestyle takes care of themselves, is active, and eats healthfully. They are disciplined. Under this same definition, I should be healthy: last year, I scheduled around 30 doctors' appointments for myself, took myself to the emergency room by myself, and administered intravenous antibiotics to myself. I keep up an active lifestyle, working out five days a week when I'm well. I eat healthfully by avoiding raw fruits and vegetables that will give me an intestinal blockage, and by otherwise trying to avoid trigger foods while keeping a balanced diet. To me, that is taking care of myself, being active, and eating healthfully, but I definitely don't fit the normal definition of "healthy." PwDs/illnesses are not "bad" or undisciplined because of health factors often outside of their control.

The point that I am trying to make is that a person's character is not fundamentally determined by their health status. A person with a disability/illness can be kind, arrogant, helpful, infuriating, lazy, determined, and even healthy or unhealthy, just like a person without an illness/disability. Our medical histories should never function as the primary factor by which to judge our personalities and contributions to society.