Learning what’s it like to live with a disability

August 23, 2021

By Rebecca Small, Wellness Coordinator

Learning what’s it like to live with a disability

Stepping into the world of disability with Practical Nurse student Emily was a powerful experience. Join me, NorQuest Wellness Coordinator Rebecca Small, in this journey below.

Me (Rebecca): What disability/disabilities do you identify with? 

Emily: I have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), as well as Bipolar Disorder, Complex-PTSD, anxiety, and depression. Some people identify different things as a disability, and I include my mental illnesses because of the impact they have on my life and day-to-day functioning. 

What challenges do you face on a day-to-day basis?

The combination of my disabilities makes it hard to understand how each one impacts me in isolation, but collectively they all contribute to many daily challenges--constant restlessness and high anxiety severely impacts my ability to focus or complete tasks. Often, I sit for hours so zoned out that I lose half of my day. In contrast, when I’m doing a task, I can also get so hyper-focused on it that I have a hard time pulling away to do other things, even when I need to. Prioritizing can be extremely challenging for this reason. 

I can find myself stuck some days living in panic that bad things are going to happen, living on edge constantly, and I have sleeping problems leaving me feeling constantly exhausted. My memory is impaired, making it feel impossible to remember things such as appointments, conversations with friends, or recalling what I did the day before. I find that the best way to remember to do things is by setting many alarms as reminders; this also breaks up my day just in case I get stuck in a daze or am hyper-focused on something.  

Have you had any positive experiences juggling school and disabilities?

When it comes to what is available for supports, going to school has involved nothing but good experiences. From Accessibility Services and Assistive Technology, to setting me up with programs to help with my studies such as recording lectures and applying for student loans and funding, they took a lot of stress off me.

I connect with my instructors before the term starts and let them know I am a student with disabilities and introduce myself. I have had great responses from instructors and their willingness to help. When I am struggling with my studies and have questions, my instructors have been amazing with helping me walk through what’s needed, even if it means me contacting them multiple times.

What helps you succeed and manage your disability?   

Medication is a big help in managing my ADHD. It lessens my symptoms, giving me the ability to be more present and focus on the work at hand. It doesn’t completely remove symptoms; I still had to learn--and am still learning--to manage it. I have to make sure that I am very organized from having my assignment due dates always visible and accessible at the front of my binders, to my class schedule also written out as a daily reminder. My partner helps me stay focused and on track when working on assignments.  

When I have a hard time understanding assignments, I make sure to reach out to my instructors or tutors for extra help. Seeing a therapist also helps manage my mental illnesses, and plays a key role in staying on track for school.  Without that extra support, I would be stuck in my own head taking away my ability to focus on school. I find I get so absorbed in school work that I don’t give myself breaks because I panic I won’t get it done. I have to be consciously aware and force myself to take breaks and take care of myself, which includes remembering to do simple tasks such as eating.

What do you wish people knew about your disability or people with disabilities in general?  

Having a disability has a lot of negative stigma attached to it. It can make other people feel uncomfortable and like they have to fix us, especially when we are symptomatic. Just because people have disabilities doesn’t mean we can’t partake in life to its fullest; it just might look different.  

Our society is built for able-bodied and neurotypical people to succeed; those with a disability are dis-abled from operating the same way other people do in society. What many see on the surface of our disability is just a glimpse of how it affects us, and by saying we don’t look disabled or are too young is just ableism.  

What I wish people knew about my disabilities is that I am still human and deserve the same kind of care as others. My disabilities have left me fighting on my own to have some semblance of life. Sometimes it’s near impossible to get through each day without being so symptomatic that I can’t function. On my worst days I may need extra support and sometimes that means going to the hospital, and that’s okay.  

What’s next after graduation?

My goal is to get a job as a Pediatric Nurse. Growing up as a sick kid with Crohn’s, I really appreciated my nurses and they meant a lot to me, so to be able to be there for other sick kids would mean a lot to me. 

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