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On Having Disabilities

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Date: July 26, 2023
Category: Mental Health

May 10, 2011, was a beautiful spring day in Connecticut. I was idling in a traffic jam on my way home from work. Then, from the other direction, a pick-up truck going 80 miles per hour suddenly veered into my lane and struck my car head on. Just before I passed out from shock, I watched the meadows of Coventry recede in the distance as the helicopter carried my shattered body to St. Francis Hospital. I was later told that I flatlined twice on the trip.

A little over three weeks later, I was revived from a medically induced coma. You’ve seen those cartoons of people looking like mummies with bandaged limbs suspended in the air—literally, that was me. To the relief of my family, I spoke my first cogent sentence in nearly a month. Decorum forbids that I share it with you.

It was a long road back, almost a year, as I progressed from the hospital to a nursing facility and at last, blessedly home. I was a fixture in the physical therapy clinic. The best day during all of that was when I healed enough to transfer to a wheelchair, rolling the halls wherever I pleased: freedom! “Wheelchair bound” offends me; I was wheelchair independent.

I soon learned the world was not designed for wheelchair users. There were too many inaccessible buildings and fixtures to count, and I missed a lot of favorite family outings. Getting trapped in the Kohl’s clothing racks was like being lost in a thick jungle without a machete. I had a panic attack, weeping in the parking lot after my son finally rescued me.

I was still a wheelchair user when first I came to SAMHSA in 2013. I am grateful for the schedule flexibility to continue physical therapy, and for the opportunity to telework from a nursing home while I recovered from my third hip replacement surgery. That also saved me from the insidious influence of boredom. I’m fortunate that my injuries were such that some improvement was possible. I know some people who have had disabilities all of their lives. I have great respect for their perseverance in facing barriers to full participation in society from birth. The most painful may be the lack of respect for their capabilities and strengths by others. I was given a button at a disability rights rally that reads “Attitudes are the Real Disability.”

At first, being told I may never walk again rekindled the attitude I had when I was hospitalized for schizophrenia as a teen. I was told then my diagnosis foreclosed any hope for a career, a home, or a family. Defiance spurred my recovery.

I walk with a cane now because I leaned into the same coping skills that I used for my mental health recovery—distress tolerance, mindfulness, accepting support, dogged determination, and a tenacious grip on hope. I still live with physical disability, partial deafness, chronic pain, and traumatic brain injury.

July 26 marks 33 years since the enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Compared to the general population, people with physical disabilities are at higher risk of suicide1, substance use and mental health problems, and co-occurring disorders2. These disparities deepened during the COVID-19 pandemic. SAMHSA and our community partners must play an important role in supporting people with disabilities achieve their full potential. SAMHSA’s population of focus incudes those with unseen disabilities as a result of their behavioral health conditions. SAMHSA programs like Protection & Advocacy for Individuals with Mental Illness (PAIMI) serve to protect their rights. We must strive to improve the accessibility of services, support rights protection, and do our utmost to advocate for community inclusion in all aspects of life. To this end, SAMHSA recently compiled a set of resources related to the landmark U.S. Supreme Court Olmstead v. L.C. decision that established the right to a life in the community.

We all have our limitations. I try to live with the things I can’t do, work around the things that are hard, and continue to test limits. Please do that with yours, whatever they are. Value people that are different for the richness all their own. As we celebrate the ADA, I ask that you champion its promise of equity and opportunity in our programs, our communities, and with each other.

1 Association between functional disability type and suicide-related outcomes among U.S. adults with disabilities in the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 2015-2019
2 Mental Health and Substance Use Among Adults with Disabilities During the COVID-19 Pandemic - United States, February-March 2021