This piece was written by Yicheng Liu as part of our 'Disability pride starts here' project.
“Explain yourself to me.”
I’ve had to think about this question for a time, in various healthcare settings, how I would best go about it. For all of my life, I had been told by others that I was autistic, broken, disabled. When I was young I never heard talk about disability as anything besides being abnormal, or less than the standard that you should have been.
In any case, I was told to mask it, never talk of it, and hope no one would ever notice. As a child, I accepted that, and thought it was a fact of the world that you can accept without question. But it never quite sat right with me.
I’m autistic and also physically disabled. I was diagnosed with autism quite young, and for about as far back as I could remember I had been told that I was born quite sickly, and that it’s a point of shame. The common media tropes at the time I grew up, the casual dismissal of those who are neurodivergent, had always left me with an indelible impression that the way I am is different. Forcing myself to act and think in a way that brings as little attention to myself or making other notice had been how I was taught to contemplate myself and my relationship to disability. When I think about it now, I feel sad about how long I had spent not being able to come to terms with that. How much I struggled during my childhood seeking approval and dealing with inauthenticity.
It is a part of growing up, for me, to see past that. Look at the ways in which I can confront those insecurities as a part of my struggles. In some ways, I’ve always felt that I faced much more struggles resulting from being disabled in an ableist society, than I had in dealing with my disabilities. Only recently, have I had the opportunity of being affirmed in my sense of self, in feeling that it’s not a stigma but simply a part and parcel of myself that I have look at directly.
The discussions surrounding this stigma has changed, and I am fortunate to see it change slowly as I came into my own. But that pain still hurts in ways that doesn’t always display itself physically. It’s a confusing subject for me to talk about, and there are still emotional baggage that I’m sure will still take time for me to unpack and have it fully sit right.
I want to be able to take pride in how I am still here, despite everything. I want to be defined as more than just what my brain and body can and can’t do, since I am more than just a descriptor of capabilities. I think it’d be nice now, when I think about how I can go about asking for my accessibility needs to be fulfilled, and for all the ways that I can think of, being different does not make any one person lesser than the other. Relating to the struggles of others who deal with and take pride in a disabled identity gives me inspiration, because I knew I was not alone in my own struggles.
When I think about the stories I had been told of others in encountering and embracing that feeling of pride in themselves, it exudes two types of confidence: ‘I know who I am’, and ‘I like who I am’.Maybe that’s something I can feel aspirational about, to be able to have and maintain that same strength in my identity.
As a child of Chinese immigrants, I had grown up encountering two different cultural attitudes towards disability, both of which left me feeling alienated, alone, and isolated in struggling in a way that I am still only beginning to try to resolve. There has been moments where I felt alone in both communities. I want to be happy and be able to confront those things frankly in a society that accepted me for who I am, or at least be able to find a community in which I am not alone in those struggles.
As I moved through my university years, I had been fortunate enough to find community and kinship in struggle, to be able to express myself and learn to overcome my fears in seeking help coming to terms when things fell apart, and I was at my lowest point mentally speaking during COVID. The pandemic happened right as I was about to start university, it was not an ideal situation, all things considered. Trying to schedule and interact with doctors and resolving my healthcare needs online had been one of the most frustrating processes I have had the misfortune of taking part in. But despite all that, I am still here, and I feel like I had still achieved goals that I have set for myself in that time, and I can take pride in that.
My fear had revolved around how other might perceive my identity in a culture of self-expression, afraid that I would have nothing to say. And those fears made me unhappy. Worrying about it has left me miserable without the correct words to even articulate it. But now, I guess I just feel like…me, and I’ll stick with it.
The problems don’t disappear, but at least coming to terms with it had empowered me to find my community, to identify my needs and goals, and to be in some way making progress towards meeting them, I wish I could tell the person I was all those years ago, when I was still out there struggling with insecurity and uncertainty, that my worries aren’t special and that I can thrive in the face of adversity, because I deserve to feel safe and valued. I want to tell myself that it’s okay to speak for myself and my needs, to not shy away from being able to think in both the abstract and in the specific to live with dignity. I want each subsequent moment of life to be filled with unique beauty, and to be authentic in that way.
Meet the writer
Yicheng Liu (he/him) is a queer university student. This piece was submitted in reflection of the significance of disability pride and trying to find their own place in the world.