Self-disclosure has always been such a hot topic in the disability community – especially for people like me with invisible disabilities. While some of us don’t always have the choice of self-disclosing, those of us who do grapple with a very personal, vulnerable, and challenging decision – sometimes on a daily basis!
And self-disclosure shouldn’t be challenging, or anxiety-inducing – we should all be free to be who we are, without fear of discrimination or exclusion. Of course, this is not the case. Self-disclosure can result in a whole lot of trouble, and the process of self-disclosure can take a serious emotional toll.
After I started working for NEADS, I realized the word disabled is smack dab on the top of my resume. Disabled, disabled, disabled. And while I only realized this after taking the job, it came more as a relief than as a regret. Having NEADS on my resume, aside from the absolute resume boost it is that I am forever grateful for, provided me an opportunity to really bite the bullet when it comes to self-disclosure – instead of navigating it case by case, I chose to self-disclose as a default.
The decision to self-disclose my disability by default wasn’t just because of my resume – it was because I was really growing into my disabled identity, and becoming proud of the disabled person I am. There is an absolute power when it comes to self-disclosure: power over the narrative, power over perceptions, power over the situation. Once I began to self-disclose by default, I never had to feel like I was hiding such an important part of my identity ever again. With self-disclosure, I was able to embrace my full, comprehensive, entire, and very disabled identity in ways I never could before.
As a queer, disabled woman, I’m going to take the opportunity to draw a parallel with coming out of the closet. I realized I was bisexual around age 14, and I never once considered being in the closet around my peers. I was proud of who I am, and I still am. And when I was in the closet, primarily around my family or in workspaces, I felt so uncomfortable. I was hiding a critical part of myself, my identity, my lived experience from people I loved, people I saw every day, people who had an undeniable impact on me. And every time I came out to someone new, I felt a little more safer and a little bit more comfortable with who I was.
Choosing to self-disclose my disability by default was choosing to own my full identity unapologetically, in every space I occupy. And while scary at first, it quickly became empowering. I recently started a co-op work term for the government (views are entirely my own!!), and without any real thought spoke about being disabled my very first day. And it has been so, so rewarding. I already feel so welcomed, so accepted, and so safe to be myself in this environment. And while the environment would have stayed the same regardless of my self-disclosure, it feels safer knowing I have nothing to hide.
Another perk about disability self-disclosure by default is the confidence boost. Being open about my disability and my lived experience makes me the disability expert in the room, whatever room I find myself in. And when you are a very small fish in a very big pond (or lake, or ocean) – having that undeniable knowledge and skill can be so comforting. This confidence boost is equally matched with a self-confidence boost – by self-disclosing, I’ve chosen to live up to my full identity every single day. I’ve chosen to be unapologetically myself, and to believe in my capabilities and choices.
Part of self-disclosure, for me at least, has to do with disability pride. One of the reasons it can feel so hard or unsafe to self-disclose is that society is constantly advocating for your death – be it through MAID, removing masks, accepting deteriorating health care and long term care systems, you name it. And when people want you dead, naturally you might want to keep your disability on the down low. So, when I choose to self-disclose, when I choose to go against these social stigmas and norms to take pride in my identity and be true to myself, it feels like an act of rebellion. It feels like a radical act of self-love. And it feels like an act of community: the more of us self-disclosing, the more of us working together to push back against these narratives and to improve disability representation in our spaces.
A disclaimer: self-disclosure is not for everyone. Self-disclosure can be dangerous, life-threatening even. You can choose not to self-disclose (or you can just not self-disclose when there is no real choice available) and still be proud of who you are. You can be proud of your disability and not publicly claim it. You do what you gotta do to keep yourself safe. I know I speak from a place of privilege when I share the benefits of self-disclosure, and I know that as a white woman from the middle class, I will not be subject to the discrimination many of my disabled peers face.
Disability self-disclosure by default has been freeing, empowering, and incredibly meaningful. It has allowed me to enter new professional spaces in my entirety. It brings me confidence and self-confidence. It enables me to use my expertise to make spaces more accessible and inclusive, and it creates representation that makes my disabled peers feel safer. To go from hiding my identity and weighing the pros and cons of being my true self to owning my personality and lived experience has been transformative and freeing. And while it’s always a personal choice to self-disclose, I ask my disabled peers in a position to do so, go ahead and self-disclose! Non-disabled society has no clue just how many of us there are, and once we self-disclose we are able to find each other and work together to create more accessible, inclusive, and diverse workspaces. Together, we can make self-disclosure an asset and a source of pride, not a liability and source of anxiety.