Being part of the disability community means constantly losing friends and allies. I don’t expect that to change.
By Robyn Powell
“Kristen has passed away.” I’ll never forget learning that my best friend died. I was only 11 years old. We lived in the same town and attended school together. She had spina bifida as well as problems with her kidneys. After years of dialysis, it was kidney failure that ultimately killed Kristen.
Now, at 37, I have lost count of the number of loved ones who have died. I do know that it is well over 20. Friends have died. Colleagues have died. Romantic partners have died. Even my first love died a few years ago. Each year I lose at least a few people I care about, and I don’t expect that to change. The deaths of people close to me are something I have come to accept.
Just last month, my friend Carrie Ann Lucas died after her health insurer refused to cover the medication she needed. Yes, she had a progressive disability but its symptoms were exacerbated because she did not receive adequate health care.
Other pioneers in the disability community, whom I looked up to, also died recently. Dr. Anita Silvers, a professor of philosophy at San Francisco State, died after complications from pneumonia. Professor Mike Oliver from the University of Greenwich in England died after a short illness. Oliver is known for developing the social model of disability.
I was born with arthrogryposis, a disability that affects my muscles and joints. I use a power wheelchair and have limited use of my arms and legs. Being disabled is normal for me. Indeed, it is all I know. It is also something I am incredibly proud of.
But each time a disabled friend dies I find myself questioning many things in my life. And one recurring question is this: How I can I maintain my disability pride when I am always surrounded by death? It is not always easy. In fact, at times it can feel insurmountable. While some of my friends have died because of their disabilities, others have died because of broken systems that devalue the lives of disabled people.
Some disabilities are associated with shorter life expectancies, but many are not. And, because of advances in technology and treatment, people with disabilities once considered terminal are living longer. Stephen Hawking, who lived for decades with A.L.S. proved that. Nevertheless, being part of the disability community means being surrounded not just by the life and support, but by death.
Research shows that people with disabilities die younger than nondisabled peers. Sometimes our life spans are shortened because of our disabilities, but that is not always the case. In one study, researchers found that disabled people are more likely than nondisabled people to die from heart disease, cancer, stroke, respiratory disease, accidents suicides and assaults. And while physical and circumstantial factors are at play, it is often the way we are treated that contributes to early death.
Disabled people encounter significant barriers to accessing health care. We are more likely to die because of police brutality (the rate is especially high for disabled people of color), and more likely to experience violence victimization. Also, disabled people often live in poverty and experience material hardships.
I have been around disabled people my entire life. The disability community is where I feel the most comfortable to be myself. They understand my experiences — both good and bad — and offer great insights without trying to fix me or my disability. They don’t see our disabilities as tragedies or something to be ashamed of. They appreciate how much it sucks when an airline breaks my wheelchair or a personal care assistant doesn’t show up, but they also recognize how important disability pride is.
Being a part of the disability community has made me who I am — and I don’t just mean in the physical sense. I have had beautiful and rich experiences, not in spite of, but because I am disabled. I have met truly amazing people whom I would never know if I weren’t disabled. Having a disability has also informed my life’s work. First as a social worker and now as an attorney and researcher, I have committed myself to fight for disability rights. My disability and the experiences I have had make me better at my work. I likely wouldn’t be in this field if I weren’t disabled, but I am thankful that I get to do this work.
Not everyone understands disability pride, which is apparent when a disabled person dies and nondisabled people nearly always repeat the same ableist remarks: “They are no longer suffering.” “She is now free to run.” “He is finally cured and now dancing among the angels.” I can’t say hearing these things doesn’t get to me; it does. These comments diminish the lives both of the dead and the living. Most of us are fine not running; we are not suffering, and we do not want to be cured.
During difficult times, I sometimes find myself wondering why I allow myself to continue to be surrounded by death. Having disabled friends means frequent loss. Death and disability are uncomfortable bedfellows. But to avoid this constant grieving would mean to rid myself of a community that I love.
In some ways, I believe that being surrounded by death has allowed me to live a more fulfilling life. I try to cherish my time with loved ones, intensely aware that it could be the last time I see them. I also strive to live in the moment, appreciating the little things in life. Because I have experienced so much loss, I know the importance of celebrating the good times.
Death is unavoidable. But as a disabled person, I am all too aware that death and disability are inextricably linked. Because of my disability, I have an enriched life. I have also experienced tremendous heartbreak. In the end, I have come to understand that I will love, and I will grieve. There’s something almost freeing about accepting that harsh reality.
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