Jasmin Ambiong, Partnership Development Manager APAC for Billion Strong, talks about her journey towards having pride and embracing her identity as a person with a disability.
July is Disability Pride Month. As I thought about disability pride and how to join the celebrations, I decided to look through a disability identity lens at how our community is impacted by society’s negative assumptions towards persons with disabilities (PWDs). I want to address my own lived experiences with disabilities and to feel proud about my journey, despite society often telling me that I am inferior or broken. I also want to write about the importance of embracing disability identity and support systems.
I am a woman, daughter, sister, aunt, Filipino, and a member of the disability community. I choose to identify as a blind person and as a woman with a disability, because I want to show that my community can add value if we’re allowed to fully engage in all aspects of society.
Identity is such an important part of our lives. The truth is that I am not easily offended by whichever term you want to use in regard to my blindness, as long as it’s not a negative term that allows nondisabled people feel comfortable in addressing my disability or meant to degrade me. It did take me some time to be at ease with the different terms, and I am still not okay with the ones that are meant to hurt or disenfranchise me and my 1.3 billion peers in the disability community. In my country alone, the Philippines, there are 1.44 million persons with disabilities, according to 2010 Census of Population and Housing (2010 CPH).
My main request for society is to let the community of PWDs decide what terms and labels we want to use. We have been held back for far too long, and we are ready to own our power and show the world that we can and will contribute to society.
Effect of Society’s Negative Assumptions Towards Embracing Disability Identity
Over the years, society has had a lot of negative assumptions about PWDs. Some of these harmful assumptions are that we are a burden, naive, pitiful, cannot contribute to society, and are good for nothing. As a person with a disability, I know that these negative stereotypes are everywhere. We see them on TV, in newspapers and magazines, and when we go out of the house. As a result, whether consciously or subconsciously, we start believing them. I have not always been proud of myself because of society’s constant negativity towards PWDs. I wanted to disassociate myself from the PWD community because of the shame attached to it.
I remember when I was a little girl, a woman came into my mother’s business. She saw me and told my mother, “She is going to have a wonderful life, be a global leader, and travel the world.” I got excited about these predictions. “Me? Really?” Then my mother said, “She is blind.” The woman said, “Oh, well, never mind then.” So, in one sitting, I was at the top of the world until society realized that I was broken. How am I supposed to have pride when people say things like this to me and my family? It is interesting to note that the woman was actually correct! I work for Billion Strong, a global nonprofit focused on disability inclusion, identity, and pride.
Society’s negative assumptions make it harder for PWDs by constantly telling us that we are not a real part of society. I asked some of my visually impaired friends about their experiences. They said that there was a time when they didn’t like it when people called them “blind,” “disabled,” or “bulag” (Filipino term for blind). They said those terms made them feel uncomfortable and like they were useless or naïve, because that’s what they saw being portrayed on books and TV. Whether people are born with a disability or acquire a disability later in life, those negative assumptions have a significant negative impact on how we feel about ourselves and each other.
Journey Towards Taking Pride with Disability Identity
As I mentioned, I wasn’t always comfortable with my disability. There was a time when even my family was not allowed to call me “blind.” I was always referred to as “someone who can’t see.” That’s because back then, the word “blind” was used by mean children on the streets to bully me. So, as a result, I shied away from that term. I really hated it.
It was during my first summer camp when I heard people casually calling each other “blind.” At that time, I was shocked and felt weirded out with the language. To be honest, I wanted to tell my parents to just take me home. Every day for a month, I hear them say that term until it finally started growing on me.
It felt liberating to realize that the word “blind” is not a bad thing at all. It’s a part of who I am. It wasn’t until college that I could confidently say that I’m proud of my disability, but that summer camp was the start. It was the beginning of me freeing myself from all the negative feelings attached to my blindness.
Importance of Disability Identity and Support Systems
Embracing my disability identity is a huge part of why I now feel at peace with myself. It’s like finally getting to know the real me and realizing my worth. I am a blind woman, and I now know that there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. People can say and assume whatever they want to with regards to my disability, but I will no longer believe it and will never be ashamed of my blindness.
What helped me to be in this place of full acceptance is my support system. My family and the PWD community are a big part of it. The support from different PWD organizations has pushed me to go out of my comfort zone, and my fellow blind friends have taught me a lot in terms of adapting to our community. The schools that I went to, particularly college, have enabled me to have confidence in myself.
I experienced first-hand the importance of a solid support system. This is why I joined Billion Strong as their Partnership Development Manager for Asia Pacific. Billion Strong is an identity and empowerment organization designed to bring the billions of voices of PWDs together, and I am sure that they will do a lot for our community. It is the first identity organization that I know of. Imagine if you had an organization behind you that believes in you, empowers you and, most importantly, tells you that your disability is something to be proud of. That is the incredible work that is being done at Billion Strong.
It will take us a long time before we completely eradicate all of society’s negative assumptions towards PWDs. However, we cannot wait forever for all of those negative assumptions to be gone before we decide to accept ourselves and fully embrace who we are. The words “blind,” “disabled,” or whichever term you use to identify is not pitiful, shameful, or degrading. Your disability identity is yours to decide. Embrace it, and be proud of it. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.