Like many in different cultures, I grew up feeling that it wasn’t appropriate to show weakness. It wasn’t good for people to know that you are suffering. They may take advantage of you or ridicule you and you’ll most likely have bad experiences if you chose to open up and show your vulnerabilities.
Almost fifty years later, I still have very vividly the picture in my mind of my grandmother (who practically raised me as my mother was unavailable most of the time and my father absent), struggling stubbornly and defiantly to walk with the aid of an umbrella as she refused to get a walking stick in case people say she’s disabled! Not sure what condition she had but couldn’t move her legs from the knees down.
This super-strong, independent, hard and defiant woman would dress immaculately, wear wigs and make-up and the most colorful clothes I had ever seen! All this, during a time in a country were any woman over 60 was considered old and it wasn’t culturally appropriate to wear anything but dark colors like blue, grey or black. Well, grandma was wearing fluorescent bright yellow and orange and red lipstick and had an array of various coloured wigs and Jewelry to make Cindy Lauper envious (if you know what I mean!)
I loved that woman! Admired her and deeply respected her for she was the one who taught me that ‘I’m aloud’ and ‘It’s ok’ and ‘the world can say whatever they wanna say’!
And yet, despite this strength of character and resilience, my grandma was fragile and vulnerable when it came to stigma. She didn’t want to accept that she was disabled. She didn’t want others to know either. I remember when later in life she visited us here in Australia, she was adamant not to use a wheel chair to be pushed around (even when offered at the airport upon arrival!).
In a culture fascinated with perfection and obsessed with youthfulness and good looks, how does one come to accept their limitations? How do you fight internalized shame and stigma? Where do you draw your strength from when your immediate family, neighborhood, friends and society frowns down upon you?
What is your cultural experience of stigma when it comes to physical or mental disabilities? How can we get from a place of shame to a place of pride ? To own and accept our disabilities and be proud of who we are without the need to hide them, to cover them up? How do we get rid of the umbrella and grab our walking stick?