CAMPUS LIFE EDITOR
The Academy Awards aired on Feb. 24, and millions of people tuned in to watch. Social media platforms like Twitter were abuzz with responses to the different stars’ outfits, awards, and the lack of a host. One celebrity seemed to stand out — Selma Blair, known for roles like Legally Blonde, Cruel Intentions, and the Hellboy franchise. Her slicked-back blonde hair, pastel-and-black rainbow cocktail dress with matching cape, and a sleek black cane gave her an air of regality. The custom cane proved to be more than a fashion statement; it was there to aid her with her multiple sclerosis (MS). This was her first public appearance since her diagnosis in October. Two days after the Oscars, Blair had an exclusive interview about her diagnosis with Good Morning America.
Blair’s bravery started a discussion regarding disabilities. How challenging can it be to get a diagnosis? Are disabled people required to tell others about their disabilities?
I myself have a few disabilities, but I must put a disclaimer: my disabilities and disorders mostly fall under mental illness, and I understand that they are different than physical disabilities. I understand that, while I am disabled and my disabilities affect me every day, my disabilities are not as severe as what many disabled people experience. I don’t need to get into everything I have, but a few things I have are Dyspraxia (a developmental coordination disorder), Dysgraphia (a learning disability that affects writing), and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). I have other disabilities, but these are what I’ll focus on in this article.
Diagnosis is often difficult. Many people with disabilities are overlooked or misdiagnosed by doctors. Blair knew for years that something was wrong, but doctors continued to tell her, “[You’re a] single mother. You’re exhausted. [You have a] financial burden.” They were excusing her MS for normal levels of fatigue that naturally come with motherhood and the stress of life. Getting diagnosed with things that aren’t visible is hard.
Growing up, I learned to hate the word “potential.” Because of my ADHD and other disabilities, I was working harder than anyone around me, but I had nothing to show for it. I would answer every question in class so teachers knew that I knew the information, but I would end up with F’s on tests that I could recite all the information for the day before. Also, I would stand on the sidelines in gym class because my brain and my body couldn’t communicate well enough to let me jump rope like the other kids. Every teacher I ever had, until I was diagnosed with multiple different things, had told me the exact same thing: “You have so much potential, but you’re lazy. You don’t want to do well. You don’t try hard enough.” I would miss vital information from every lesson, as I’d have to swirl the pencil about an inch above the page pretending to write because I physically could not. Writing even three words gave me searing pain. I knew how hard I was trying to be normal, but I couldn’t show anyone else what I knew was inside me.
Blair said, “I was ashamed, and I was doing the best I could . . . but it was killing me.” It tends to be much easier for people to believe that disabled people are just lazy or being dramatic about normal struggles without a proper diagnosis — which, again, is hard to get. Blair spent so many years constantly going through MS flare-ups because doctors wouldn’t believe that anything was actually wrong. When she finally got a diagnosis, she cried. Blair said, “I had tears . . . When I got the diagnosis, I cried with some relief.” A diagnosis doesn’t mean all your problems disappear. You will still struggle. However, a diagnosis means that you aren’t just making symptoms up. You were valid in thinking something was wrong; there might be treatment or accommodations to make things a little bit better.
Choosing whether or not to tell people about your disabilities is hard. Blair has been incredibly courageous opening up about her MS diagnosis and letting herself be vulnerable. I always struggle when I have the option to tell someone about my disabilities. On one hand, it can help other people understand my actions. On the other hand, it’s always hard being that vulnerable. For example, I was making a clementine cake this past summer, and I had to zest oranges. Doing anything with my hands is hard because of both my Dyspraxia and Dysgraphia.
Eventually, it got so hard to do something as simple as zest an orange that my hand stopped responding, and I involuntarily threw the orange across the room. That might sound light-hearted (and I chose a simpler example on purpose), but something as small as not being able to zest an orange makes me feel so ashamed. It reminds me that I can’t do everything like “normal” people. If I can’t do something that “simple,” how can I expect to overcome hard obstacles within my disabilities?
I ended up breaking down to a friend about how worthless I felt, and I don’t regret telling her. She was able to comfort me — but, more importantly, our bond grew a little stronger, as she was now able to understand a little bit about what I go through on a daily basis.
But, if I didn’t tell her, it would have been fine; disabled people don’t owe anyone an explanation. I never have to tell people about my disabilities, no matter how bad they’re flaring up. Having me open up about my disabilities to you isn’t a right, it’s a privilege. Of course, I should talk to my doctors, teachers, disabilities services employees, etc., but nobody else has to know. It is up to me to decide that I feel comfortable enough. There are certain ways that my disabilities affect me that nobody knows about, and that’s okay. Nobody needs to know the things that make me ashamed about my disabilities unless I personally decide that I want them to. Blair hid a lot of her symptoms from people out of shame. She would “drop [her] son off at school a mile away and before [she] got home, [she’d] have to pull over and take a nap.”
Getting help after a proper diagnosis is important. Blair’s doctor told her that “within a year [she] could have 90 percent of [her] abilities back.” I am on medication, and I receive accommodations. These things have helped me more than I could have ever imagined. My school performance (amongst other things) has completely changed, and I’ve been getting the grades I knew I deserved. It isn’t perfect. My disabilities still affect me greatly, but, since I was diagnosed, I’ve been able to use tools that help me actually reach my full potential.