Alma Silver

Reimagining “Self-Advocacy” as a Disabled Woman

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Photo Sarah Whiting

From a young age, I learned to outwardly identify as a self-advocate. I forged this identity out of necessity, rather than choice.

As a physically disabled woman who uses a wheelchair and speaks through a communication device, I grew up facing the omnipresence of ableism and inaccessibility. Throughout my adolescence, I asserted the accommodations I needed to succeed in classroom settings. I corrected non-disabled people who treated me as if I could not understand what they were saying, speaking in ways intended to make them feel comfortable. I prided myself on my independence, maturity, and self- reliance. My earliest moments of self- advocacy reflected my baseline desires: to be seen, accepted, and included equally alongside my non-disabled peers. I resisted stereotypes and prejudices by encouraging people to look past my disability to see the “real me.”

When I entered adulthood and started to live independently, my identity shifted as I realized that my real self is my disabled self, and the two cannot be separated. I began to reframe my disability as a positive dimension of who I was instead of something that others needed to look past. I refused to accept the societal narratives that distorted my disability into a tragedy to be pitied or a defect to be overcome. I started to call myself “disabled” vocally for the first time, reclaiming the label as a source of pride.

As I grew in my disabled identity, my definition of self-advocacy changed. I wanted greater autonomy and representation within the spaces where I was included. I empowered myself by taking visible leadership roles on my college campus and fighting for more equitable policies within the institution. My new self-advocacy reflected a deeper sense of defiance. Simple inclusion and acceptance were not enough anymore.

I celebrated my boldness as a disabled woman. I talked about my self-advocacy skills as an accomplishment and practiced them in almost every space I entered. I never questioned my decision to speak up, even when doing so forced me to neglect self-care and ultimately pushed me to a breaking point.

After my college graduation, I got out of an ableist living environment, and I spent over a year fighting against barriers within the disability home care system to access the direct support services that I needed to live in my own apartment. I quit my full-time job after enduring harassment and discrimination regarding my accommodation needs.

During this period, self-advocacy felt like a burden, rather than a victory. My heart pounded in my chest as I asserted my own worth. I locked my gaze, released deep exhales, and steadied my hands on my communication device. I stood up for myself with sentences that felt electrifying to say aloud.

“I deserve better.”
“I am not okay with this.”
“I would like to finish speaking, uninterrupted.”

I practiced self-advocacy by saying a single word: no.

As I set boundaries, demanded better treatment, and navigated the power dynamics imposed by ableist systems, I faced confusion, indignation, and sometimes outright anger from non-disabled people. Still, I refused to accept the bare minimum or compromise my autonomy and wellness.

This new wave of self-advocacy came with exhaustion and doubt. I experienced raw moments of weakness and defeat. I questioned the power of my voice. I wondered if I was asking for “too much.”

I also felt disconnected from the empowerment that once characterized my disabled identity. At times, I simply wanted a break from the pressure.

Healing took intentional time and self- work. I sought counseling services and embarked on a journey to rediscover my disabled identity. Gradually, I learned to love myself in my disabled body again. I decided that my ability to advocate for myself would not determine the inherent value of my life. I separated my self-worth from the outcomes of fighting against broken systems and ableist stereotypes. Asking for help was the hardest and most cathartic self-advocacy I have ever accomplished.

Now I honor my pride as a disabled woman while still allowing times of grief, vulnerability, and affirmation. I cultivate something known as “access intimacy” and surround myself with a circle of friends who anticipate my access needs and embrace my disability as a natural experience.

My disabled identity encompasses more than resilience and strength. It encompasses softness, love, solidarity, triumph, failure, and everything in between. It encompasses the ebb and flow of my complex human experiences. Being disabled simply means being alive.

Along my journey toward healing, I started to reimagine self-advocacy as self-love. Self- advocacy means choosing rest and grace. It means centering joy, nourishment, and care. It means embracing inner peace.

I still need to fight for inclusion and access out of necessity in many environments. For so long, members of the disability community have needed to advocate for themselves to survive in a society where institutionalization, segregation, and inaccessibility are the norm. Many of us are systemically barred from the privilege and resources that would allow us to choose rest over advocacy. But I also know I have privilege as a white and cisgender disabled woman.

Because of the power of self-advocacy, disability is evolving into a visible and normal part of our society. Ultimately, I envision a world so accessible and equitable that self- advocacy is transformed. In this world, self-advocacy ceases to be a burden that we shoulder out of necessity, a requirement for our existence. Instead, self-advocacy is an empowering choice. It cultivates interdependence and allyship. It is the foundation of collective activism, a catalyst for liberation.

Alma Silver (she/her) is a freelance writer, editor, and public speaker based in the Twin Cities. Alma is passionate about disability justice and strives to become a licensed mental health therapist.