Don’t Dis My Ability
Written By Guest Author, Yael Gottesman
I am 1 of every 5 Canadians who experiences a mental health problem or illness each year. I am also 1 of every 5 Canadians, aged 15 years and older, who has a disability. I am a 29-year-old with Spina Bifida and I also happen to have diagnoses of anxiety and depression.
I knew I was disabled at around age twelve. At that age, I was filled with anxiety. I was watching from my screen door as my sisters went to play with friends. I watched as they got invited to parties, sleepovers, bar and bat mitzvahs, while I did not. At age twelve I was in sixth grade. I started becoming more aware of my body and began to have a deeper understanding of Spina Bifida. Certainly, the kids around me made me feel even more aware.
I was the only student in my entire elementary school to have a physical disability. My peers started rumors’ about me that spread like wildfire. I was taunted and mocked by kids much younger than me.
I was never chosen for a group project. I was not allowed to go outside for recess or participate in gym class because the teachers were too afraid that I would get hurt. I faked being sick multiple days a week just so I would not have to go to school.
I did not feel like I could talk to anyone at that time. I thought no one could understand how I was feeling. My identity was ”the girl with depression in a wheelchair”. I kept these feelings to myself all throughout grade school, and high school was not much better. Depression became more prevalent for me during high school. I was in a class with peers who had much more complex needs than I did. I found myself struggling to relate to my peers and struggling to socialize. Yet again, I felt so alone. The support staff would leave me alone in class, which led to panic attacks. When signs and symptoms of depression were present, they simply brushed it off. They did not take it seriously. Not everyone understands mental illness or disability and that is why it is so important to surround yourself with the right people, whether it be friends, family, doctors or teachers. Personally, I reach out to my friends, my team of social workers and my psychiatrist.
People who have a mental illness and a physical disability face many barriers. These barriers include constantly battling negative perceptions and stigmas, not to mention physical barriers such as inaccessible transportation vehicles, buildings and other basic facilities such as washrooms. Accessibility is a basic human right. So why is society failing to provide it?
One thing that I have learned by navigating the system as someone with a disability and mental illness is that people will often tell you what you cannot do. It is up to you to show them that they are wrong.
If I could give any advice to able-bodied people when dealing with their disabled peers, it would be this: treat us like people, not like disabilities. Include us. Invite us. Talk to us. Disability and mental illness are often isolating. If I had listened to all the negative people in my life, I would not now be a college graduate in the field of creative writing and I would not be a successful author. You need to be your own advocate.
Growing up, I hated the idea of talking to someone about my problems. Upon reflection it has turned out to be the best thing I have ever done for myself. For me, writing and any other form of art are great coping strategies and really help me to stay in the moment. Find something you enjoy and use it to your advantage. And above all, you need to know that getting help and talking to someone is absolutely okay. Living with a disability, a mental illness or both are difficult things to cope with.
There are so many different resources out there ready to help if you need it. There is Kids Help Phone, The Gerstein Crisis Centre, The Warmline, as well as local distress/crisis centres. If you are not comfortable talking on the phone, there are apps you can download such as Talkspace and BetterHelp.
Just know you are not alone. I have been there. I am there. I understand.