It’s in our nature as a storytelling species to filter our experiences through the narratives we create to explain them. As humans, we go through life full of self-talk, whether or not we do it consciously. When we plan an event we know will likely be stressful, such as traveling to a place we’ve never seen before, we rehearse it in our minds and tell ourselves why it will be okay.
Our culture goes through much the same process of creating new stories to explain advances in technology, changes to our traditional social structures, and greater diversity in our communities. Having to deal with so many unexpected changes can make us very anxious, just because life feels so unpredictable. We need simple, calming explanations that fit reasonably well within our existing mental maps and leave us confident of being able to manage the changes.
Now that we’re a half-century into the modern civil rights era, our culture has mostly gotten used to the idea that we shouldn’t expect everyone in our communities to look and behave exactly the same. Although we still have much work to do on clearing away old prejudices, our society has made much progress toward the goal of accepting diversity.
But many of us find it harder to accept ourselves for what we are. Mass-market advertising preys on our insecurities by suggesting that we won’t have any friends unless we wear the latest trendy fashion or drink the right brand of beer. Whatever our physical traits may be, there are cosmetic products or treatments aimed at improving them, along with ads that proclaim how embarrassing it is to look like our natural selves. If we don’t fit in with some clique at school or in the workplace, we could get bullied for being “weird.”
It’s not always easy to recognize such manipulation and bullying for what they really are. Often we blame ourselves, thinking that we’d have more friends and get along better if only we could be more like other people. Then we blame ourselves again for not doing a better job of dealing with our gloomy feelings and our anxiety. We don’t take enough time to consider all the factors involved.
Defining one’s personal identity and finding self-acceptance can be even trickier in the context of disabilities, mainly because our culture hasn’t yet fully accepted them as part of human diversity. Instead, our culture has created narratives about normality and what might happen to anyone who doesn’t fit neatly within its boundaries. As a result, anything outside those boundaries—wherever they may be at any particular time—can be hard to accept as part of one’s own identity.
Well-meaning people sometimes offer advice along the lines of “accept the condition, but don’t let it define you.” Such advice generally means not letting one’s potential be limited by low expectations. As with person-first language, the aim is to put less emphasis on the condition, in hopes of avoiding the negativity often associated with it. Put more simply, this advice is: Don’t settle for being defined by all the bad stuff our culture says.
Some may see this as acceptance—but it has the drawback of leaving all that bad stuff out there, unchallenged. And when we don’t actively challenge prejudices, we often end up internalizing them. That is why pride campaigns work toward reclaiming words and asserting control over their definitions. Whether we’re talking about disabilities or any other human characteristics, leading an authentic life requires acknowledging their place in defining our identity. We can’t truly accept ourselves as long as there is something we keep tucked away at the back of the closet, never mentioned above a whisper.
When we put acceptance into action we’re telling new stories, both to ourselves and to the world. We’re creating new definitions that embrace all of who we are, rather than just the parts that fit someone else’s idea of who we should be. This is how our culture grows and evolves. Seen in this light, the telling of authentic narratives is a gift to the world, broadening its boundaries and strengthening its diversity. No one should ever have to feel afraid or ashamed to speak a personal truth.
This article has been published on the Autism Acceptance Month site, which posts new articles and resources every April, with a focus on “sharing positive, respectful, and accurate information.”