To the People Who React to My Disability With ‘I’m Sorry’

Karin Hitselberger
Sep 18, 2015

Often people approach me and ask the about my chair. Sometimes it’s a little awkward, but when they approach it the right way, and I decide to answer, the conversation usually goes a something like this:

Person: “So if you don’t mind, may I ask why you’re in a wheelchair?”

Me: “I have cerebral palsy. I was born this way, it’s just how I am, I have always been in a wheelchair.”

Person: “Oh! I’m so sorry! That must suck. I didn’t know.”

Me: “That’s OK, don’t be sorry, I’m not. It’s just part of who I am.”

Person: “I can’t even imagine. It must just be so awful. You’re so brave!”

Me: (Screams internally.) “I’m really not brave, I’m just a person. Have a nice day.”

The truth is, I can’t stand these conversations. I can’t stand that people think they are being nice by apologizing for my very existence. The truth is, my life may be different from the average, but it’s nothing to be sorry for. When you apologize for my identity, you are reinforcing the idea that who I am, who I was born to be is anything but desirable. When you apologize for my identity, you are signaling to me that I should feel bad about it too, and for a long time I did.

For a long time, my disability and my wheelchair were everything that was wrong with me. These things were everything that made me different. These things were everything that separated me from what was normal, and I was too young and too caught up in our current cultural narrative to see the truth. For years I wished that I could be anything but who I was. For years I wished I could be normal the way our society defines it, just so people would stop staring. For years I believed I was the problem, and if I could just be different everything else would be, too. For years I believed the lie that I was something to be sorry for.

From an outsider perspective it’s easy to look at disability and think that’s something to be sorry for, but that’s not the truth. Who I am today, the girl people call brave and smart and strong-willed and a million other things, I am because of my disability, not in spite of it. My dreams, my passions, my purpose and my drive are a direct result of who I am, not a shocking anomaly.

When you apologize for my wheelchair, my disability, you apologize for the person I’ve become. When you apologize for my wheelchair, you make it seem like I’m the problem, like who I am is so bad that I deserve an apology for just having to live. My wheelchair is part of who I am, as is my disability, and I am proud of them. They have helped to define me and shape the way I see the world. They have given me some of my best friends and greatest life goals.

These things are no longer what separates me from others, but rather are what has given me some of the people I love the most, who understand me and love me back not in spite of who I am, but precisely because of it. To me, this is amazing, and certainly nothing to be sorry for.

If you want to be sorry for something, apologize for discrimination. Apologize for the fact that there are still places in this country I cannot go. Apologize for the fact that people treat me differently just because I roll instead of walk. Apologize for the fact that in a prestigious college interview, I was told I wouldn’t like the school because “there are not many people like you there.”

If you want to apologize for something, apologize for inequality. Apologize for the stunning lack of accessible housing and accessible transportation. Apologize for the ridiculously high unemployment rate in the disability community. Apologize for staring. Apologize for treating me like a little girl even though I’m a 23-year-old woman. Apologize for stereotypes and stigmatization.

If you want to apologize for something, apologize for all those things, because all of those things are worth being sorry about. But don’t apologize for my identity. Don’t apologize for who I am. Don’t apologize for my wheelchair. It allows me to live the amazing life that I have. Don’t apologize for what makes me different. I’m not ashamed of it, and I’m not sorry. You shouldn’t be either.

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