Grace Avila is a senior sociology major.
The first time I said “I’m disabled” out loud was on the MUNI my freshman year at USF. A man asked me to give up my seat, most likely because many college students offer theirs up when an older person boards the bus. However, when I said I was disabled, he dropped it and headed toward the back of the bus. I didn’t say I was disabled with pride that day, though. I said it with shame and embarrassment.
Since then, I’ve struggled to come to terms with my disability and body. I constantly think about what it’d be like to be able-bodied again and, for so long, I’ve seen my disability as something that hinders me from living a full life. I’ve resented it for cruelly taking away my ability to relate to my people. For being something that has made me less.
With graduation just months away, I’ve been reflecting on how I see my disability. With thoughts like “my ears don’t work” and “my body doesn’t move as smoothly as it did in high school” constantly weighing me down, I realized that I’ve only focused on what I couldn’t do because of my disability, instead of what I still could. While I am now ready to do the work to change how I view my disability, I have not always been this determined.
During my senior year of high school, I had a brain tumor removed from the vestibulocochlear nerve of my inner ear and, as a result, I lost most of my hearing and it became difficult to find my balance, as a person’s inner ear and their equilibrium are interconnected. With my life literally and figuratively out of balance, I no longer felt like myself. I thought I needed to prove to myself and everyone else that I was still enough. Because of this mindset, I’ve missed out on many beautiful things trying to be someone who I’m not.
As I’ve grappled with identifying as disabled, I’ve learned and gained so much. Because of my hearing loss, I learned American Sign Language (ASL) at USF, and even became an ASL tutor for the Modern and Classical Languages Department. ASL has brought my friends and I so much closer — I sign with them on the MUNI, across the tables at Gleeson Library, and inside of the Boba Guys on Divisadero Street.
In January 2020, I adopted my hearing alert dog Charlie from a service dog organization. Although training him has been difficult, he has taught me patience. I’m grateful that he wakes me up as my alarm clock goes off and that he increases my spatial awareness when we’re in public.
I’ve met disabled friends on Instagram and found a community with them. I’ve learned how to advocate for myself and others when things are not as accessible as they should be. Disability research is something that I’ve been interested in since coming to USF and, now that I’m a senior, I feel empowered to write my thesis about disability representation in movies and disabled content creators on Instagram.
This past week, I had the honor of meeting and speaking with three beautiful disabled women who I connected with on Instagram. We shared our experiences of what it is like to live with a disability in America. We also discussed the complicated journey of developing self-love and the confidence to empower others to see that they are also gifted and powerful despite their disability.
The conversations I had with those women made me feel proud and empowered to be a disabled woman. They reminded me that even though I have a disability, that isn’t all there is to me. I am also a daughter, sister, friend, student, writer, dog handler, book reader, bird enthusiast, and boba lover. While my disability is a part of my identity, it does not define who I am.
Disabled people can do anything that able-bodied people can do, sometimes we just have to do it differently. And, even though I have a disability, I still struggle daily with unlearning the abelist mindset that I unknowingly internalized as a kid. Learning to become empowered in my identity and to develop self-love will be a lifelong journey — but it is a journey which we all undergo at some point.
I fight everyday to remember that my disability does not make me weak or lesser than. My disability has taught me to ask for help when I need it and has allowed me to experience the world in a different way. I don’t want to fight it anymore. I want to embrace being different because being different is beautiful. Even though the ability to fully embrace my disability still feels far away, I am on the road to becoming comfortable with who I am.
After all, disabled isn’t a dirty word.