Reflecting On What Disability Means

Reflecting On What Disability Means

By Emily Heath 

Emily rests their head to the side on their left hand. Emily wears a black knit hat, a gray T-shirt over a long-sleeved striped shirt and gray jeans.My name is Emily and I am an intern at Art Spark Texas. The “college experience” means something different for everybody but it might bring up memories of dorm living, eating cup ramen, and pulling all-nighters. It is an environment where people explore new things and learn many lessons. One of the things that I have learned is how to advocate for myself in terms of my anxiety.

For some background, I received a formal diagnosis for anxiety in high school. What this meant for me at the time was that I was able to take tests in a quiet room and I didn’t think too much of it. However, to receive accommodations in my secondary education seemed to hold more weight compared to high school. My college required me to claim a disability.

According to Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, and the amendments of 2008; a “disability” is a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity, such as caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, and working, or other activities as defined by law. According to that definition, I have a disability. I found it difficult to accept because I never thought of myself as someone with a disability. I also didn’t feel comfortable using this word to describe myself due to the negative connotations associated with disability.

I am still not sure if I should say that I have one.

Despite that, I was “accommodated” with my own room and quiet living conditions. Which I don’t think should be an accommodation. I believe privacy and personal space are essential, especially in a stressful and continually changing environment. An institution that requires a person to claim a disability, provide a diagnosis, and seek mental help to sleep in their own room that they are already paying for seems excessive. It exemplifies how colleges prioritize profit over the health and comfort of their students.

Receiving this type of accommodation makes disability seem like an exclusive and privileged thing, on a campus where space is limited. There are many of my peers who experience the same mental struggles as I do but do not receive the accommodations they need because they do not have a diagnosis. People who need mental health support the most, are often the ones who do not receive it. Acquiring a diagnosis or attending therapy is incredibly inaccessible due to how expensive it is.

Working with Art Spark Texas has opened my awareness to many types of disabilities. During my time, I have been able to identify untrue stereotypes and negative connotations around disability. Art Spark Texas creates a welcoming community that provides a creative and social outlet without trying to fix or heal the person.

The work that I am doing with them is a collaborative dance project on the topic of anxiety. I have been able to engage with people in the community with a variety of movement ranges. Although we have differences, we could relate to each other through anxiety. What I have observed, is the way anxiety manifests into movement is similar in many bodies. People who have never met each other are creating similar movements, which I find so incredibly profound.

I am grateful that anxiety has become more normalized and I can connect artistically with people on the subject. Although this shouldn’t deter from the impact it has on one’s life and should still be treated like the health concern it is. Whether my lived experience can be defined as a disability or not doesn’t really matter to me. The way that I needed to advocate for changes to be made so I can exist in space, helps me understand the experiences of those who cannot walk or are visually impaired. Even though the school I attend seems progressive, the time I’ve spent with Art Spark Texas has made me see ways that my school can grow and become more inclusive.

Emily Heath is a second-year student at Bennington college where they study dance and psychology. Their work is focused on how dance can become a tool to heal emotional and psychological wounds. As an intern at Art Spark Texas, they are working on a collaborative dance project with the community on the topic of anxiety.

1 thought on “Reflecting On What Disability Means”

  1. Emily, I went to Bennington and was also a “high anxiety” student as well as a young woman living with daily fear. I had a difficult time interacting with others and feeling comfortable in large group situations. I was later diagnosed with severe PTSD due to a dysfunctional upbringing with an alcoholic mother and an abusive brother. There were no provisions for me. I requested a single room but was not given one. I stayed in the all-night study room and spent my life at Bennington studying. We are living in an age where everyone has high levels of anxiety. We have lived through a pandemic that is just beginning to wind down. If education is to work then everyone must be seen and considered as an individual. I am certainly glad that you found a path. I agree with you that the concept of “disability” should be reconsidered.
    I have spent my life and education finding alternative ways of healing PTSD other than medication or in addition to medication. My MA from Lesley University allowed me to pursue alternative healing for many years. I am now counseling people with PTSD as well as anxiety issues of all kinds. I have found dance, journal writing, painting, yoga teaching, and practicing, and especially painting to be of utmost importance to me and others in dealing with fear, anxiety, and stress. I am happy that you are investigating on your own, especially through dance.
    Emily Carmen MA, Bennington College Alumna
    PS- Please have the printers fix the description of you. Under, “Emily Heath,” the writer uses the wrong personal pronoun- you might want to exchange “they” for “she.”
    Blessings on your journey.

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