As part of IWA's International Day for Persons with Disabilities activity, Disability Activist and Ambassador Geraldine Lavelle writes about life, disability, attitudes, expectations and her lived experience in a powerful and moving testimony.

I read somewhere that said “There is no greater disability in society, than the inability to see a person as more” but what about the inability to see yourself as more than the disability. I personally experienced this for a long time after acquiring my disability.

My physical disability made me feel I was not seen for my true self because of my body and what it can’t do. A negative self-image feeds into low self-esteem and how much you feel you are worth and valued. I started to feel worthless, to doubt my very existence. There was always something bubbling beneath the surface, wondering whether or not I was a burden to my family, friends and loved ones.

BUT I learned after a long time, through the help of loved ones, to remember; I am a daughter, a sister, an auntie, a friend, a niece. I am a masters neuroscience graduate. I am strong and feisty! Oh ya, and I have a spinal cord injury.

I stopped comparing myself to everybody else. When we compare ourselves to others we self-hate. We are all unique, each of us a person of value with a different path in life. My family reminded me of my identity and dignity. Now I focus every day on what I can do, learn, achieve and create!

There is a dark underbelly to introducing ourselves with a kind of shorthand. When labels go wrong, they can lead to stereotypes. Perception becomes more about the experiences accumulated by the people you are talking to rather than anything that they may or may not know about you personally or the challenges you encounter daily. And let’s face it there is a staggering negative perception and attitude around disability.

I say: I have a disability. Some may think: You’re a lazy, unskilled, liability….

The strength, mentally and physically it takes every day to live a life with a spinal cord injury is immense. If it’s a job or just a visit to the shop. Everything asks more of you and you learn how to deal with that. It’s not easy but people notice it and they will respect you for that. But ultimately it starts with you!

But saying I have a disability does not mean spending my day lying in bed watching tv. In fact, my life is about a hundred times more physically and mentally challenging than before my accident. Daily I struggle with the balance of finding the fine line between doing tasks myself to the point of physical exhaustion to be self-reliant. I have had to learn so many more skills than I ever thought I would need in order to survive.

Every day, I try to achieve goals although minor to others, enormous to myself and my three quarters paralyzed body. I push my manual chair through the broken footpaths, the stifling curbs throughout town to run my daily errands. I cope with all the responsibilities that come with life; managing finances, meeting deadlines, on top of liaising with big ruling bodies for example the HSE and county council, along with organising the people who assist me with my daily challenges.

Disability pride is about promoting a different understanding of ‘disability’ beyond the medical model

Disability pride is about promoting a different understanding of ‘disability’ beyond the medical model. Historically the medical model of disability presented as a problem of the person, directly caused by trauma, disease, or other health conditions, which required sustained medical care. Little or no contact was made between these children and children or peers in their community. As a result of this isolation, it was believed that people with different intellectual and physical abilities had different educational needs and were more socially isolated.

The management of this problem within the social model of disability requires social action and cultural, individual, community, and large-scale change. The development of international and national policies and laws gives guidelines and support to develop ‘best practice’ in providing inclusive environments and processes. However, while these have certainly aided the educational side of things, I still feel much inroad needs to be made with regards housing for those with disabilities.

Ellen keane is a role model to many and her Instagram posts highlights exactly why – she lifts and champions others and helps instil confidence and strength. She is a much-needed voice to so many.  Only the other day my partner was asked why he did not choose someone “normal’ instead of me.  Although these comments often come from ignorance, sometimes they can affect body image and self-esteem. Almost eight years living with a disability and those ignorant remarks still hurt but thankfully I’m a lot stronger than I once was.

 If you’re reading this and you can relate to the utter anxiety of something like this happening or if something like this has happened, please don’t hide. You will get stronger I promise. It might take some time and you might have to fake it for a while but don’t allow some sheltered individual to ruin your happiness and make you doubt yourself. It’s important parents do not ‘bubble wrap’ their children as it will make them think they can’t go out there and ‘do things’. Disability pride means you take pride in your whole self, which includes your disability. It means you understand your limitations, including chronic pain or illness, but accept and love who you are. The view is to create a new positive narrative about the contribution of disabled people in the workforce and the wider community.

We need to appreciate that each person is more than just how he or she looks on any given day. We’re complex and constantly changing. I learned to focus on what’s unique and interesting about myself. I quickly realised that you can possess heart, passion, power and patience irrespective of whether you have the full use of your body or not.