Inflammatory Bowel Disease and Disability: What does it mean for me?



[dis - uh - bil - i - tee]

lack of adequate power, strength, or physical or mental ability; incapacity.

a physical or mental handicap, especially one that prevents a person from living a full, normal life or from holding a gainful job.

anything that disables or puts one at a disadvantage:

Who knew that having Crohn’s disease or Ulcerative Colitis is actually covered as a disability? I sure didn't, up until a few years ago. I ended up doing some research out of curiosity to understand the relationship between "having inflammatory bowel disease" and "having a disability." By 9pm last night, I was pretty deep in the literature and found myself on the Social Security website. Then I read impairments.. Digestive Systeminflammatory bowel diseaseHey! That's me!

But what does it mean to have a disability, even an invisible one? Let me dip my foot into the controversial pool for a bit here. Even though it is covered under Federal law, in my opinion, thinking of yourself with a disability is somewhat subjective. This is easy for the girl in remission to say, I know, but hear me out. We determine these labels (intellectual disability, ADHD, cerebral palsy, IBD) to help programs or governmental funding sources know who to serve. But if you ask someone with an intellectual disability whether they feel disabled, what do you think they will tell you? I learned recently that the ever-evolving language around disabilities isn't the bees-knees in forwarding equity and understanding in this community. Many individuals just want to be called by their first name, not by a label, no matter how inclusive the language might become. Thank you for coming to my TED Talk. *Takes foot out of controversial pool*

In this post I will investigate what it means to have a disability, what it means to have Crohn's disease or Ulcerative Colitis, and map out my road to understanding on how they overlap.

A basic definition of disability is "a physical, mental, cognitive, or developmental condition that impairs, interferes with, or limits a person's ability to engage in certain tasks or actions or participate in typical daily activities and interactions." Seemingly just big words, the coverage of this definition is forcibly broad and doesn't give much description of how it looks for someone with IBD. But, when you compare this definition to living with the symptoms of active IBD it starts to make sense. Coping with the symptoms of a flare-up can be extremely debilitating. It affects your body so harshly that it impairs your ability to perform basic daily functions, such as going to work, making dinner, picking up your child, or simply walking around your house.

Let's focus on IBD as a disability. Because Crohn's and Colitis are both oscillating diseases (meaning you can go from healthily in remission to active disease, and back again) this can get complicated. It's like saying you are a vegan one day and eating a cheeseburger the next. One day you have a label and the next you forget about it. In the context of IBD, you have a disability. And the next day you still have a disability but it doesn't disable you. Like I said, complicated.

Now you are probably thinking, "Alright Erin, I understand that IBD is a disability. What does this mean for me?" And I would counter with, "What do you want it to mean?" If you feel IBD is setting you back behind your peers, you should seek whatever help you need. There are a lot of programs established just for that reason! Do you need emotional support? Family counseling? Nutrition counseling? Long-term disability in the workplace? Whatever could be improved, reach out and find what works for your lifestyle. To illustrate, up until a few years ago, I realized that I couldn’t do it all by myself. It never occurred to me that reaching out for help was an option and I was being stubborn. I was so comfortable with where I was. All I needed to do was try a little harder… To my dismay, this strategy to face my own challenges didn’t work out so well. I still had trouble sitting through an exam and felt hopeless about my situation. It was this final breaking point that I saw the value of seeking outside help. I sought help from my school's disability resource center and was assigned an Access Consultant, who would back me up whenever I needed accommodations in the classroom. Even though my disease is in remission, there is always an unknown for what could happen, so I still use these accommodations as a resource.

It's still confusing because I definitely don't feel like I have a disability. This made me reluctant to seek help from the  disability resource center even though I knew I would have benefited. I felt dirty signing up for accommodations, like I was taking opportunity away from someone else, or that someone on the receiving end of my application would laugh and tell me to move on. And "I mean I don't really need them, do I? I can just figure it out on my own. It's no big deal.."

It is a big deal.

The word "disability" has it's place in the real-world, but it's ultimately up to you how to live by this label. Will it hold you back? Do you identify by it? Whatever the answer is, make it your own.

What do you think about the word disability? Or how has it’s classification as a disability shaped your ability to cope with the disease?