It was a warm summer morning at the campground. Birds were chirping, bacon was being cooked over the open fire, and everyone was enjoying the fresh air. Except for me of course.
I was at the picnic table with my laptop, silently resenting everyone who made me take this trip. I had two deadlines looming and an online class to keep up with. Because I required personal care, I couldn’t stay home by myself.
As a 21-year old, my life was already an endless cycle of stress, work, and sleep; all three of which were competing with one another for my time and attention. This had been the theme of my life for years and I had no intentions of stopping, until today when my plans would drastically change.
It started with a headache. I tried caffeine and water but it only got worse, so I decided to lay down for a nap. Soon, it began to feel like my chest was being ripped in two and the room began to spin. I reached for my phone but knocked it on the floor and tried to yell, but my voice was weak.
By maternal instinct or an act of God, my mom decided to check on me just as I vomited. She sat me up to find out what was going on and I collapsed. I was too weak to hold myself up.
Everything after that was a blur, but when I regained my consciousness days later, I found out that I had a spontaneous pneumothorax, which is a fancy way of saying that my lung collapsed with no discernible cause. In the middle of several projects and on a family vacation, one of the most important organs in my body decided to just give out. I mean, come on lungs. You had one job.
Surprisingly enough, the world kept turning as I sat in my hospital bed. I handed off all of my projects and, though I wasn’t there to verify, I’m convinced that nobody did as well with them as I would have. For the first time in years, I wasn’t trying to hold the weight of the world on my shoulders and I hated it.
I tried to go back to school that semester, and I failed. I tried to get back to work. Failed at that too. I tried to stay out of bed for more than four hours at a time, but again was unsuccessful. It turns out being able to breathe well is an important part of being productive.
It was at this point that I became acutely aware of the fact that my whole identity was wrapped up in what I could achieve. Not being able to work or help others made me feel irrelevant. As if I might disappear.
You’d think this would have spurred more reflection at the time but as soon as I was well, introspection went out the window. I had a lot of time to make up for so I threw myself back into work and began holding the weight of my shoulders again. It wasn’t until years later, when I became active in the disability community that I even realized what I was doing: overcompensating for my disability.
For many years of my life, I was the kind of disabled guy you would put in a meme designed to make lazy people feel guilty. I was a part of the rare breed of disabled people called, “Super Crips.” A title I wore with pride until I realized it was supposed to have a negative connotation.
Because I was never going to be physically adequate in my mind, I worked double-time to be intellectually and economically exceptional. Essentially, I had a chip on my shoulder and felt the need to show everyone how great I was in spite of my disability. If life were a video game, I would have been accumulating smart, talented, and cool points to make up for my lack of strength and speed points. The problem is, I never felt like I did enough to measure up.
We live in a world where it’s normal to rank and classify humans against one another. We do this in academics, sports, lifestyles, income, and popularity. We’re taught to as early as we’re taught to sing our ABCs. We often do it without thinking twice. Most of all, we do it to ourselves. We compare our speed, strength, intellect, or talent to everyone else’s and often find ourselves inadequate. This was especially true for me and if I had to guess, many other people with disabilities.
While I don’t think the process of assessing someone’s IQ or strength is inherently bad and I love healthy competition, I think the practice of determining a person’s value through these metrics is. While we need smart and strong people in this world, we also need funny and kind people just as much. For every career-oriented person in the world, we need a family-oriented person as well.
For every rocket scientist we need, we need 100 mechanics, and for every body builder in the world, there needs to be 100 accountants. If we put economic value aside, we also need encouragers, good listeners, storytellers, and givers.
This was a really important discovery for me because, while I did well academically and have a solid resume, I came to the realization that my best abilities were never measured on any of the tests I took in high school or college. I also realized that while you can’t monetize kindness and generosity, they are some of the most valuable traits in the world and I wanted to be remembered for exhibiting them.
Every person in this world has superpowers, but in order to find them, we often have to learn to ignore the things our society deems important. Once we remove ourselves from the scale society tries to use to determine our value, we can find the things we love about ourselves and lean into them.
I will never pass the presidential physical fitness test, but I’m pretty good at making people laugh. I will never be physically strong, fast, or athletic, but while people are taught to view me as deficient because of it, I’ve come to value myself without comparing my abilities to anyone else’s.
I believe that, if we as a society can unlearn the ranking systems we use to compare ourselves to one another, we will take a major leap forward in inclusion especially for people with disabilities. I don’t see this changing anytime soon, though so in the meantime we all have to make the personal choice to step off of the scale. Once you do, though, the possibilities are endless.