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Opinion: The Many Identities of Disability

Defining what it means to identify as disabled proves to be a complex task. While many definitions exist, the Ontario Human Rights Commission recognizes the broad nature of the term. It covers everything from physical disabilities, developmental and mental disabilities, learning disabilities, injuries and more. The disabled experience, how a person interacts with and perceives the world through their disability, varies so much that one sole definition fails to encapsulate it all. Disability identity branches into many subcategories; this includes disability within an official medical diagnosis, disability within a self-identified diagnosis and disability within a self-acceptance context.


The Identity of Disability Through Official Diagnosis
Disability as an identity through official diagnosis is an identity applied to someone in an official medical context. It’s something official documents might state, something medical professionals will diagnose and something that appears with the person as a record. In this context, the identification through disability happens through other people’s eyes.


An individual holding a checklist/application

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A person with a documented disability experiences that perspective through a medical setting. To be medically-labeled as a person with a disability differs from self-diagnosed disability identity or one worn proudly on one’s sleeve in self-acceptance. It’s the one granted by other people, and primarily under a medical lens of institutions, papers and numbers.

Speaking personally, I was diagnosed with cerebral palsy shortly after my birth. I haven’t known a life without that being on my medical record. In every medical setting, I am, by default, known as a disabled person simply because that’s what my records say. This is not something easily separated from a person, regardless of their own personal relationship with disability.


The Identity of Disability Through Self-Diagnosis
Disability as an identity through self-diagnosis happens in cases where a person, without an official diagnosis, identifies as disabled. Just like how an official diagnosis does not automatically grant personal self-identification of disability, the lack of one does not automatically deprive someone from personal self-identification of disability.

Many barriers to proper diagnoses exist within Canada, such as financial burden. Many disabilities often diagnosed at young ages, such as autism, are often misunderstood as “child” conditions and lack support for adults. For example, BC offers the British Columbia Autism Assessment Network (BCAAN), which provides “free diagnostic assessments for children up to age 19.” However, autism assessments for British Columbian adults cost at least $2,000. In Ontario, the province covers assessment for children, but adults pay up to $2,500.


A line of people standing with their arms around each other.

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An American study from this March in the Review Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders stated that self-identification of autism is increasing within adults, in part due to misdiagnoses and the barriers towards accessing official diagnoses. Most participants found it had “a positive influence on understanding who they really were.” Despite the controversial nature of this self-identification, it is one example on how self-identification can help. With an often large financial cost, long waitlists and varying societal attitudes towards disability, an official diagnosis should not be the only valid way to identify as a disabled person. A self-diagnosis can be as fulfilling and affirming to a person as an official diagnosis.


The Identity of Disability through Self-Acceptance
Identification with disability through self-acceptance is an internal change that comes with feeling comfortable in one’s own skin. A person might acknowledge that on paper that they are disabled, or they might suspect a disability through other means, but that does not guarantee them to personally identify as a disabled person.

In other words, it’s a personal journey for many to grapple with what disability means to them and how they want to address it in their lives. With disability often still carrying a stigma in Canadian society, this process can even be lifelong. It certainly hasn’t been the smoothest road for myself, personally.


A silhouette of a wheelchair user in dark lighting.

(Image: Pexels)


I mentioned earlier that I’ve spent my whole life knowing that I have cerebral palsy, but I wouldn’t say I started embracing my identity as a disabled person until the last year. I didn’t spend all those past years truly embracing a disabled identity, loving that side of me and connecting with the community. But I’m slowly growing and learning to understand what my own individual relationship with disability is. I still have many questions, but just acknowledging the current state of my journey is progress.

Stigma within Canadian society still creates barriers to acceptance. These barriers manifest physically, such as inaccessible architectural features, but also mentally through personal and public perception of disability. A 2019 report by the Public Health Agency of Canada addressed the impacts of stigma on Canadians’ health. It describes stigma as something that devalues others, leads to discrimination and is reinforced by “unequal power dynamics in society.” It also highlights that one in four Canadians have experienced some form of discrimination. With all sorts of stigma impacting at least a quarter of the Canadian population, any improvements in equality help tackle this issue.

In highlighting these three ways of categorizing disabled identities, I want to note that these these experiences don’t apply to all disabled people. Of these identities, some people may experience one, another, none or all within their lives. Everyone feels differently about which identity or identities suit them best. Despite its personal nature, identity often involves the connections people make with others and the environments they live in. Sometimes having something to help visualize what identity means can go a long way.


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