Thursday, June 2, 2011

When you look at me, what do you see?

When you look at me, what do you see?

Do you see my pretty face smiling at you? Maybe you see my caramel colored skin and wonder what is she- Hawaiian? Indian? African? Maybe you see me in my suit and see a professional. Yes, that girl looks like a lawyer ready to take someone to court. Yes you look at me but you don’t see me because if you really saw me you would know that I am a person living with mental illness.

As a person with a hidden disability I have often struggled with the issue of whether to “come out” and disclose my disability. Whenever I ask people about disclosing, I have received a mixed bag of answers. Some say it will be difficult to be accepted in the legal profession if I disclose. Others say I should be proud of my disability and my past. For nearly ten years I kept my mental illness a closely guarded secret. Initially, disclosure was on a “have to know basis”: I am in the hospital and someone needs to be my emergency contact. As things improved, I started testing the waters by telling a friend and an employer. My friend was supportive; on the other hand, my employer called me “crazy girl” and used it as a basis for office pranks. That experience made me less inclined to share my story. I thought “if I can pass, then why bother making my life more difficult through disclosure.” Through law school and my internships with various disability organizations I started developing disability pride.

As an AAPD intern, I have embraced identifying myself as a person with a disability. I disclose because the disability movement gives me a sense of community and acceptance. Here, I don’t feel weird talking about my hospitalizations. I am not looked upon as an outsider, for once I feel like I fit in. In this group, regardless of disability, there is a shared experience of marginalization of one kind or another. More importantly, there is a resolve to create systemic change for people with disabilities. For me, the first step to create change is to shout loud and proud “I am a person with a disability”!

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