​Making New Year’s Resolutions to Confront Disability Shame

Posted by Reeve Staff in Life After Paralysis on December 31, 2020 # Lifestyle

By guest blogger Lauren Presutti

Every year near the end of December, it seems like there are always people relentlessly optimistic about creating resolutions to better themselves in the new year. Whether it is deciding to eat healthier, exercise more, overcome public speaking, practice more mindfulness, or travel to a new country, we see a lot of people jumping into action mode this time of year. Those are great goals, but as a disability advocate, psychotherapist, and wheelchair-user myself, this year, I’m encouraging others in the disability community to create resolutions to confront disability shame.Happy New Year sign

Unfortunately, due to systemic barriers, misconceptions, stereotypes, and ableist discrimination that exists in society, some people who live with disabilities experience a chronic sense of shame that can be difficult to navigate. In the mental health field, we understand that shame is not the same as guilt. Shame is persistent and represents how we feel about ourselves (“I am ashamed of who I am as a disabled person / I should minimize my disability as not to burden others”) rather than how we feel about something we did or did not do (“I feel guilty and embarrassed that I made a mistake”). So, if we understand shame as something that is directly tied to our personal identity, we have to talk about how individuals with disabilities perceive themselves in the context of the larger able-bodied world.

How much do you identify with your disability? How much does living with paralysis affect how you think of yourself? Do you feel like you minimize talking about your spinal cord injury with your non-disabled peers? Are you careful not to show your wheelchair in photos? Does this behavior come from shame?

Sometimes it’s not easy to know if we have disability shame. We may be so accustomed to hiding the undesirable things about our disabilities that we don’t realize we are actually hiding those things because we feel ashamed about them. Anytime people feel shame, they are more likely to feel insecure, discouraged, and isolated. They are more likely to doubt their abilities and shy away from opportunities. Shame can be a profoundly damaging part of a person’s internal existence because it holds people back from experiencing true fulfillment in their life.

The idea of disability shame can also apply to caregivers or family members of those with disabilities. Do you shy away from talking about your loved one’s disability? Do you feel uncomfortable when disability is brought up in social conversations? Do you feel insecure when describing the needs of your loved one to others?

Whether you live with a disability, or love a person with a disability, engage in self-reflection to evaluate if you feel any sense of disability shame. If this sounds true for you, I want to challenge you to adopt some of the New Year’s resolutions below. These have been written for individuals living with paralysis, but many of them can be adapted for caregivers and loved ones. The key is to think about how you can modify your beliefs and take action to positively counter the ways in which you feel shame. Your mental health will benefit as a result!

In 2021, I will stop apologizing for my disability-related needs.

In 2021, I will stop minimizing my disability/experiences with paralysis.

In 2021, I will stop pretending like my paralysis does not affect my sense of identity.

In 2021, I will explore ideas on disability pride and discover what that means to me.

In 2021, I will challenge my disability shame by openly talking about how shame holds me back.

In 2021, I will work with a therapist, mentor, coach, doctor, or other professional to confront my disability shame in healthy ways.

In 2021, I will practice showcasing more of my disability by sharing my authentic story with more people.

In 2021, I will learn about intersectionality and explore how disability is only one part of my identity.

To learn about River Oaks Psychology, visit www.riveroakspsychology.com and follow River Oaks Psychology on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, and LinkedIn.

This project was supported, in part, by grant number 90PRRC0002, from the U.S. Administration for Community Living, Department of Health and Human Services, Washington, D.C. 20201. Grantees undertaking projects under government sponsorship are encouraged to express freely their findings and conclusions. Points of view or opinions do not, therefore, necessarily represent official Administration for Community Living policy.