Oh, the dreaded d-word. Typically, I can't say I depend on US Government documents for my definitions, but I feel like this is one of those situations where I can. Per various acts, written over many, many decades, a "disability" is frequently referred to as something that is a physical and mental impairment that substantially limits one or more 'major life activities’. So, with that definition in mind, as offices on college campuses around the country change their names from "disability office" to "accessibility office," I'm left wondering what it is they're trying to achieve, and why so many people are scared of being classified as having a "disability."

Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis are placed squarely under the umbrella of "invisible illnesses." Many patients, myself included, have heard the phrase "you don't look sick!" time and time again, so much so that there are t-shirts lamenting it all over the internet. It can take visible signs of disease -- ostomy bags, scars, or even frequent absences or trips to the bathroom during school -- for some people to be accommodating of parts of my disease which I have no power over. As much as I would love to be able to arrive to class on-time every day, sometimes I need to run to the bathroom right before or have a hard time getting out of bed because my anemia has made my sleep all but worthless.

Anyone with IBD (or another chronic, incurable illness, for that matter) can appreciate that if life was a race of ability, we’d be four feet behind the starting line. This isn't meant to be a rant; I'm simply stating facts. Just because some don’t even want to acknowledge that we’re back there (clearly at a disadvantage), doesn't mean we should have to start from way behind. Even if that means asking for a little help along the way.

Given this, I cringe when people shy away from the term "disability." I feel like there's power in taking that word and making it yours; demonstrating to other people that yes, you have a condition that makes parts of your life harder, but that you continue to live your life and achieve what you want. Sure, what the "disability" office offers in terms of accommodations or help is making things more "accessible," but my concern lies more in that they changed their label in the first place. Had they started with “accessible” it probably wouldn’t bother me so much. But by effectively shying away from the word "disability," it feels like these offices are failing to come to terms with the fact that their students have some condition that makes them less able in some way.

Just because I “don't look sick" doesn't mean I don't have a right to use the disabled toilet when I have an urgent need, or that I can’t take the elevator up one story when I can't will my body to climb one flight of stairs. It does mean that, despite my disability, I'm still finding a way to go to class, and that I'm brave enough to venture further than 20 feet from a bathroom. There is power in that. So, I say that as plaques reading "disability" on college buildings are taken down, and are replaced with new ones, that anyone with a chronic disease turns around and takes ownership of the d-word. Yes, I'm disabled. Yes, that means that my life is often impacted in major ways. Yes, that does mean I'll ask for help because my condition has never been and will never be my fault and I shouldn't be punished for it. And no, I have no shame in classifying myself as disabled. I simply take pride in how much I can do despite that label.


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