Too Disabled? Or Not Disabled Enough?

A row of curved mirrors that distort reflections.
Image: Havoc/Shutterstock

Imposter syndrome–the feeling that you are pretending to be someone you aren’t–slowly devours me from two sides. On the one hand, I feel “not disabled enough.” My first time voting, I couldn’t reach or see up to the tiny tables in the booths that floated above my head. Yet, I hesitated to use the lower booths marked with the blue wheelchair sign. I was not a wheelchair user, so that wasn’t my place, right? For the longest time, I stood, the tip of my hair brushing the table I was supposed to be writing on, frozen. My mind tried to calculate all of the reasons I should or should not use the accessible booth. I fluctuated between feeling like I didn’t have a right to take up space in a “disabled” area and feeling a sense of shame, which I would later recognize as internalized ableism. I didn’t understand these feelings at the time, but they kept me glued to where I was standing. I ended up pressing the ballot against the slightly felted grey divider wall and carefully filling out the bubbles. For months, this step into adulthood lingered on my mind as I kept coming back to that shame and whether I should consider myself disabled.

Shortly after that first time voting, I went to the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) to get my driver’s license. I needed pedal extenders to drive. Massachusetts didn’t have any clear guidelines on adaptive driving equipment for people getting their license. This created confusion amongst the people at the DMV, who ended up turning me away from my driving test the first time, claiming my adaptive equipment was “unsafe.” (It wasn’t.) It took another week and a call from the medical office of the DMV (who I had already been to see before being turned away) to get me another test. I was given another test date and passed, precisely one week before my permit expired. But the exhaustion of fighting for my rights and wading through unclear protocols changed my outlook. For the first time in my life, I considered myself disabled without the feeling of imposter syndrome or shame creeping up in me. It was good timing. I got my license in June. When I started college at the end of that summer, I was more confident in claiming my disability.

That’s not to say that I didn’t, or don’t, still struggle with imposter syndrome sometimes. However, I found that college, and adult life in general, necessitated strong self-advocacy skills. I can’t advocate for myself if I’m not honest about what I need to succeed in an environment. Whether that’s using the accessible booth when voting or wearing ear defenders on public transport to control sensory stimulation, I’ve learned to understand myself and my disabilities better. The other side of imposter syndrome hits me when, instead of feeling undeserving of accommodations or accessible resources, I feel ashamed of them or hyper-aware that I might look a little silly with my giant ear defenders and sunglasses.

A couple of years ago, my family was traveling home by plane, and my parents noticed that I was particularly anxious in the airport during boarding. They heard the airline announce that those with disabilities such as physical disabilities or autism could board early. During the flight over, I’d gotten sensory overload during boarding. The people on all sides trying to squeeze down the aisle was too overwhelming. So as we headed home, my mom decided to go up and ask the flight attendants if we could participate in early boarding since I was autistic and overwhelmed. I balked at her suggestion.

“We don’t have any documentation with us saying I’m autistic,” I said.

She looked me up and down and let out a small laugh. “I think we’ll be fine.”

I caught a glimpse of myself in one of the windows. I was wearing my ear defenders, sunglass clip-ons over my prescription glasses, and a fidget around my neck. At the time, my mother’s comment and seeing myself as someone others might perceive as disabled bothered me. There was a particular shame that came with it to me at the time. I wanted to seem “normal.” Now, I’ve become much more comfortable with my disability. I care more about being at my best and accommodating my disability than what others think. Every day when I take the bus to and from work, I wear my ear defenders. Sometimes I get the odd stare or confused look, but I’m more self-aware, which leads me to be a better advocate for myself and others.

Self-advocacy and imposter syndrome are intertwined parts of my experience with disability. It’s an awkward dichotomy at times. I’ve found myself back in that space deciding between the unreachable voting booth or the accessible voting booth. Now, even if I pause, I go for the accessible booth.

Getting my license was the first time I ran into significant roadblocks related to my disabilities, but it wasn’t the last. However, it shouldn’t have taken discrimination to prove to myself that I am disabled. Accessibility is about using the tools and accommodations that you need to function in an inherently inaccessible world. Whether that’s mobility aids, sensory aids such as ear defenders or fidgets, or more invisible accommodations, these all allow disabled people to exist in a world that wasn’t built for them. A big part of the imposter syndrome I experience means trying to fit myself into not what I want to be or even what I think I should be, but what I think society at large thinks I should be. And as I work on accepting my right to exist in a space, the imposter syndrome starts to dissipate.

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Emily Ladau was the founding Editor in Chief of the Rooted in Rights Blog.

One response to “Too Disabled? Or Not Disabled Enough?

  1. Yes, I experienced this dichotomy for many years. I belonged to a women’s professional group. (women with disabilities), and felt very judged by the the leader. I guess I didn’t look disabled enough. I also experienced and can still in the professional world itself. Well, now that I use a scooter to navigate, there is less of that, but at what cost?

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