Disability and Mental Illness

By Perry Cunningham

Before my nan died, she often told me I was a very happy little kid. Growing up with sisters who never treated me differently, I didn’t see my situation as an issue. But then, at the age of five, I started school here in Western Australia and for the very first time, I realized that the world is tougher for people with disabilities.

I have spina-bifida, a neurological disease of the spinal cord, which means I’m wheelchair-bound 100% of the time. But in the classroom, even at the age of five, I remember not being permitted to use my wheelchair. I was dehumanized and had to crawl around on the floor. And while the other kids ran around, playing with their friends during breaks, I would be left to sit by myself. This caused me to feel angry, anxious, and depressed over life and my disability.

Another obstacle I face is slow comprehension, meaning it takes me longer to learn something than most people. This made school even more difficult, and I soon became the target of bullying. My peers would say all sorts of horrible things. From as young as eight years old, I recall believing people, in general, were malicious and mean.

High school was hard for the same reasons, but on a grander scale. I had become suicidal and made multiple attempts to the point I lost count. At 14, my mum moved me to a private school with a principal who, under the anger, depression, and anxiety, saw a boy that feared everything. He took the time to talk to me, made me milo (hot chocolate) in his office, and allowed me to complete my schoolwork on my own when I was too distraught to face classmates. As a result of his kindness and empathy, I managed to pass school with honors, and I remain friends with him to this day.

As much as we (disabled people) like to say we aren’t different, truth is we are in lots of ways. I didn’t want to feel different, but I am due to my disability. Truth is I’m never going to play in the NBA. But I can still do great things in this life. At 33, I’m now in counseling and am taking medication for anxiety, depression, and PTSD.

If there’s one thing I wish to tell able-bodied people, it would be this: Please see a disabled person as just another human, just another human who has different abilities than an otherwise “healthy” person. Our mental health is heavily influenced by these biases and your empathy will go a long way in assisting our perceptions of ourselves and the world around us.

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Comments (4)

  1. Kylie

    Well written. So very true! Too many people neglect to consider the impact of their words and actions. Too many people still only see the disability rather than the person. There is the person first! See them, hear them, know them. The disability is a part of their life, it doesn’t and shouldn’t define the totality of who they are. The disability provides more than enough challenges for each individual suffering from one or more. Nobody needs ignorant or negative people adding unnecessary weight to someone who already carries an extra load in life.

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  2. Barbara

    I had no idea of some of the hardships you’ve been through. Makes me sad and angry at the same time. Your disability definitely does not define you. You’re so much more than that. You have a wonderful personality…you’re caring, genuine, funny…I could go on and on! Thanks for letting me glimpse into a little bit of your life. I’d like to think we’ve come a long way with how we view people with disabilities, but I know there is so much more work to do. Hugs.

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  3. Sebastian Martinez

    I have bi polar and I need time to think about my life I need time away from family need help

    Reply  |  
    1. TWLOHA

      Hi Sebastian,

      We’re sorry to hear that you are struggling with your mental health, but please know how glad we are that you reached out. Would you email our team at so we learn more about your situation and can do our best to connect you to some resources? It would be our honor.

      With Hope,

      Reply  |  
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