When you or someone you care about becomes disabled

“It doesn’t hurt to ask.”

That’s not always true, especially for people who are disabled. Federal law protects the right to ask for reasonable assistance or accommodations necessitated by a disability, but it can’t stop the judgmental or curious questions other people often ask in response.

Usually, by the time you get to the point when you’re willing to “ask” for anything because of a disability, you’ve already spent some time dealing with some or all of the items below.

A tough adjustment

Adjustment to the complexities of life with a disability can be extremely difficult. Most of us take our good or reasonably good health for granted … at least until it changes or disappears. If that happens to you, it can be really easy to obsess over what you’ve lost, and stop living for the present or the future.

The reality of having a disability can unleash all kinds of emotions, fears, and anxieties. Will you be able to work? Find a relationship? Maintain a relationship or friendships? Are you now destined to be lonely? Can you ever be happy again?

Accept the reality that is your disability

Much as we might wish or pray otherwise, none of us can go back in time to when we were healthier or had fewer physical limitations. We can’t wish away those limitations. All we can do is try and change the way we think about and cope with disability.

It can be difficult to accept disability. Doing so can feel like giving in, like being weak and quitting. After all, we all love inspirational stories about people who battle back and overcome disabilities.

Learn as much as possible about your disability. Remember that the internet can be just as dangerous as it is potentially helpful. So, don’t believe everything you see online – always investigate, seek confirmation, and verify with a trusted medical professional.

Obsessing about medical information is counterproductive, but it’s important to understand your situation. What’s your diagnosis? What’s the typical disease progression? Are there any common complications?

The ugly truth is that not every disability can be overcome by fighting back. I was able to re-learn how to walk several different times. The last time, it just wasn’t possible. I’ll talk about that in more detail another day but I had to learn that refusing to accept the reality of my limitations would keep me limited in other ways. It would keep me devoting time, energy, and resources chasing after something that was neurologically impossible.

Allow yourself time to grieve the abilities that are gone

Before you can accept your disability, you first need to give yourself a chance to mourn what you’ve lost. Along with whatever physical abilities you’ve lost, you’ve also probably lost some of your plans and dreams for the future. Don’t judge yourself poorly for experiencing shock, sadness, anger, and lots of other emotions because of what you lost.

It’s important to try not to dwell on what you can no longer do because of your disability. Nothing good will come of making yourself more maudlin and depressed. Do your best to shift your focus onto what you can do, and what you hope to do in the future. Look forward instead of backward.

 You don’t have to always put on a happy face

Coping with a disability isn’t an easy thing to do. It also isn’t something you do once and then you’re finished with it, like cutting off a ponytail. No matter how long you’ve been disabled, some days will be better (and worse) than others. When you have bad days, don’t think it means you’re not brave, tough, or strong. It just means that you’re human.

When your disability has you feeling anything but happy, try to remember that you can be happy even in a disabled body. Life can be happy and meaningful even if you can’t walk or stand the way you used to. Maybe your hearing or vision has become a source of disability. Perhaps you can’t  use your arms or hands in ways that you used to. Your abilities change, just like the things in life that inspire your happiness can change. Change can be scary, but it doesn’t have to be a bad thing.

Minimize the impact disability has on your life

Living with a disability isn’t easy. However, that doesn’t mean it has to be a nightmare. Millions and millions of people are living with a disability. In fact,  the CDC estimates that 1 in 5 Americans is disabled – that’s 20% of people in America. You can’t pretend your disability hasn’t changed your life but you can do several things to reduce the impact your disability has on your life.

  • Knowledge is power. Educate yourself about your rights. Learn about the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) if you’re not already familiar with it. When you know more, you feel less helpless.
  • Advocate for yourself. When you’re disabled, dealing with things is more complicated, including challenges at school, at work, and in the health care system.
  • Take advantage of your abilities. Maximize the skills you have.

Figure out what adaptive technology and tools are available to you, and don’t hesitate for even a moment to make use of them.

  • Be patient and realistic with yourself. A disability forces you to relearn things that you knew for a long time, plus learn brand new and adaptive skills and strategies. You want to get back to doing things as normally as you can, and as soon as you can, so you’re likely to be impatient with yourself. Be kind to yourself and have some understanding of your own situation before you pass judgment on yourself.

Be willing to ask for (and accept) help and support

When you have a disability, it’s easy to feel isolated, misunderstood, and alone. Making and maintaining connections can vastly improve your outlook and your attitude. Sometimes you may need a person you can vent to or a shoulder to cry on; sometimes you may just need a person with whom you can laugh.

There could be times you find that the friends you had before you became disabled gradually disappear from your life. I’ve myself had this experience. It’s not always easy for people to stay friends when a disabled friend now can’t do all the same things anymore. Friendships have to be able to evolve if they are going to continue to exist.

You may want to consider joining a disability support group. These will link you with people who are dealing with challenges similar to the ones you’re facing. You may take comfort in realizing you’re not alone. You can also benefit from the collective wisdom of the group as people share their struggles and solutions, and offer encouragement to one another.

Maybe you can’t see yourself sharing about your disability in a group setting, and you’d be more comfortable speaking one on one with a psychologist or other mental health professional.

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