How I Came to Face My Disability

I am handicapped as a result of polio, but for a long time I refused to acknowledge my disability. I struggled with it and felt uncomfortable with who I was. I became happier and more at peace when I eventually came to terms with my physical condition, but that transformation didn’t come easy. It involved a lot of pain, inner struggle, and self-examination.

When I was a senior in high school, I was the head of the photography club at my school. I often cut classes to have photos developed at a studio nearby. One day my chemistry teacher caught me skipping class. He did two things that I have never forgotten. First, he dashed towards me and slapped me in the face. Second, he said to me, “You’re cutting class? With your disability, your only hope is to rely on your brains. Now you’re ruining even that possibility!”

I cried for a long time after I went home that day, and I vowed to myself I’d apply myself and aim high in life. Now I have a PhD and teach in a university. Strictly speaking, I should thank that teacher for giving me that slap, for shaking me awake and helping me realize that if I didn’t work hard, I would never amount to much in my life. However, I can’t muster the tiniest shred of gratitude toward him. That slap was a huge blow to my pride, and while it did spur me to work harder, it also made me realize that no matter how well I did, nothing would ever change the fact I was handicapped. This instilled a sense of inferiority in me that troubled me for many years afterwards.

Seed for change

If you feel inferior, you care more about what others think of you than what you think of yourself. You require external motivation to boost your confidence. Some people, for example, go to weight reduction centers to stay fit because they feel that if they have a nicer figure, people will look at them differently. However, the more they care about how they look, the easier it is for them to feel inferior about their body shape. No matter how hard they work on slimming down, they cannot eliminate their sense of inferiority.

When I realized that no matter how successful I might become, nothing would change the fact that I am disabled, a notion surfaced in my mind: Should I acknowledge my handicap and accept myself for the way I am or continue to deny it?

This question plagued my thoughts constantly.

One time I took a cab. It was rush hour and traffic was a mess. As soon as I got in, the driver took off and said to me, “I wouldn’t have picked you up if I hadn’t taken pity on you….” Without waiting for him to finish, I snapped at him, “Let me off!” He pulled to a stop, and as I got out, I threw a large bill at the stunned driver. I said, “Keep the change. I pity you for being a cab driver…hence the tip!”

Later, when I had calmed down, I couldn’t help but feel that I had overreacted. The cab driver might not have meant any insult. He might even have had a soft spot for disabled people—which might have been why he had stopped to pick me up. Maybe he just didn’t know how to express his good intentions. Looking at the matter from another angle, I asked myself: “If I hadn’t felt so inferior about my physical condition, would I have allowed myself to be so easily offended by someone’s innocent remark?”

That incident got me thinking about how my disability had come to deeply affect my mentality and my life. It also helped me realize that since my disability was a fact I couldn’t change, to continue to deny it wasn’t going to do me any good. To continue to deny my disability would only be allowing it to shackle me.

Just like that, my mindset changed. It was as if a weight had been suddenly taken from me—I felt free and liberated. When I realized that my inferiority all started and ended with my thoughts, I could feel the word “handicap” beginning to lose its grip on me.

In the past, to prove to others I could be as strong as an able-bodied person, I’d stand for six hours straight teaching classes. When I did that, my feet would hurt so badly that I had to have several massages afterwards to feel better. Now I no longer need to prove myself to others.

Face it and let go

Only when I came to acknowledge my physical limitation could I untangle the knot in my heart; only when I faced my inner demon head on, without evasion, did it stop disabling me and set me free. When I had thought this through, my mind became more peaceful and no longer so easily perturbed.

After I had accepted my physical condition, I also began to see that being disabled isn’t all bad. For example, I can get a 50-percent discount on airfare, I can park for free in Taipei City, and it is even easier for me to get certain government loans. When I could get so many benefits as a disabled person, why did I refuse to be one? All this positive thinking proved very helpful to me. During the process I realized that I can be either strong or weak—it all depends on my mindset.

Before I acknowledged my disability, I’d go out of my way to prove that I could do everything an able-bodied person could do, and even do it better. However, when something happened that proved otherwise, I’d feel very frustrated and upset.

The following incident proves this point. It happened when my first child was five months old. One day my wife was taking a shower when my son, originally asleep, burst out crying. I walked towards him to pick him up so that I could rock him in my arms and put him back to sleep, but then I had second thoughts. His spine wasn’t fully developed yet and his head and neck needed careful support if I was to hold him. To hold him properly required the use of both of my hands, but then I wouldn’t be able to use my crutches. But without my crutches, I might accidentally fall over and bring the baby down with me.

All those thoughts stopped me from picking him up. He continued to wail all the while, no matter how much I tried to calm him down. For the first time since we had married, I felt my wife was taking an incredibly long time in the shower. Why was she taking so long?

My wife eventually came out of the shower, and she quickly lulled our son back to sleep. But instead of being relieved at how easily she could do that, I became mad at myself and pulled a long face. My wife asked me what was wrong, but I just answered coldly, “Nothing. I’m tired. I’m going to bed.”

I woke up at three a.m. that night and was unable to fall back asleep, my mind churning with the incident. Suddenly from out of nowhere, a picture flashed in my mind: I was running freely across an open grassy field with my son clutched in my arms, both of us looking cheerful and carefree.

In that vision, there were no crutches in my hands. It showed that if I stopped letting my disability be a sore spot with me, it would lose its power over me. I burst out laughing in my bed.

My road to a full acceptance of myself consisted of countless moments of reflection like this one. It wasn’t easy, and it took a long time, but I finally did accept myself for the way I am. When I did, I felt I had come home.

Just be yourself

Before I met my future wife, I dated a girl for 11 years. We broke up in the end because her family objected to our being together—because I was handicapped. On account of that experience, when I eventually tied the knot with my wife, I naturally was grateful to her for being willing to take me as her husband.

My complex feelings on this issue cannot be easily explained, but they did affect the way I interacted with my wife. I remember that when I was newly married, I would go out of my way to please her. It was as if I felt subconsciously that she had done me a huge favor by marrying a disabled person like me and so I should be extra nice to her.

That continued until my wife told me I didn’t need to bend over backwards every day to please her or make her happy. She said she wanted me to be me, to be my most natural self. We had a lifetime to spend together after all, and our relationship wouldn’t be healthy unless we could share both tears and laughter, pain and happiness.

I thank my wife for helping me be myself. She is a force for good on my path to a full acceptance of myself.

Every one of us has some inner challenges to tackle on our journey in life. Try to untangle that knot in your heart by facing it head on so that you can be more peaceful, content, and happy.

May 2018