Disability and Mental Illness

By Perry CunninghamJuly 13, 2020

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 (8)

  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

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    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 [email protected] 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  |  
  4. Jason

    Hi Perry
    I went to a small country primary school a class mate/relitive had spina bifida
    We where lucky in sense as my grandfather help establish a working farm boarding school for rural children with disability
    We had them visit our school regularly for sports art etc
    We had Noongar kids it was fun times.
    I never realised till I went away to high school there was such prejudice n lack of understanding care consideration
    At near 50 I’ve had concussion number ?
    3 near death experience
    I realise I struggled at school in hindsight I have l lived with multiple head injuries n whiplash it’s affect on life n family is a long sad story
    I’m a Ghost
    Invisible injury
    Visable affects n no understanding
    At times I have wished a landed on my back not twist n turn t save the fall 2.5mtrs onto a felled tree
    I wish I was in a chair bit my head not hurt
    I might get sympathy least dispensation as obvious t problem
    But your experience unfortuneatly saying not
    I’ve gone from accepting of people to distrustful n fearing them ?
    I received a year n half of neglect n abuse at the hospital I had access to
    Blinding headaches
    Weeks of no sleep
    I started t wither away from a healthy 78kg 86kg max wen doing hard manual labor n martial arts
    50kg n weak sick n stressed
    Stuck 4000kms from my family
    With support from few friends n family that stuck with me 60kg again
    I could not of done it alone
    Wen u need help seek it
    Don’t stick with it if it’s more harm than good move on keep trying till u find the rite help
    Don’t lose Faith n Hope
    That’s the greatest disability I have had too endure
    Your courage gives me hope
    Each journey differant
    Pain n suffering is same for all no illness defines claims a mantle over another
    We suffering support each other
    I see bias in rating pain like it’s measurable
    It’s not things that I don’t flinch at cause others distress
    Wut I find distressing others have ridiculed?
    My Rural cultural upbringing was good on one hand
    The downside
    I have to be productive to be a man
    I’m not very productive now
    I’m not a man
    Not worthy
    My means of earning has diminished Physicaly how I compensated for Dyslexia
    After fall can’t read properly light sensitivity sleep disturbance concentration ect
    End result wheelchair or not we become marginalised n disaffected isolated n if left t turn inside ones self pick a mental illness t too t too it off
    Anxity ptsd got me would never believed it if told could happen
    Status migraine constant headaches
    Neck n back pain nerve pain
    Unable too eat without gagging
    Yet I’m lucky
    People still care even if not understand
    The little love has kept me going
    Rebuilding Faith don’t know
    A once of hope may get me thete hey
    Allow us self t grieve
    Give thanks for wut little we have
    Stay proud not arrogant or spiteful it’s e easy t foster hate with each cruel blow others deliver
    It’s us that rises above the so called able we encounter with selfish or uncaring ways
    It’s easyer t rite these words than live them
    But try I will
    Regards Jason

    Reply  |  
    1. TWLOHA

      Hi Jason,

      We are so glad that you found hope through Perry’s words. You are not alone in what you are facing or dealing with, and we hope that you will consider reaching out to us at [email protected] if you are ever in need of some encouragement and support.

      With Hope,

      Reply  |  
  5. Gail Ranieri

    Thank you for your article. Touched me and in so many ways. I lived with bullying for similar reasons and did not what to live. Kindness from a person turned it around too.

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  6. Mez

    I’m sorry you had to go through that. The truth is that every human is different in their own ways. Whether some have dissabilities, some are more emotional, some are very able to do many things but everyone has their own faults. The important thing is to be a better version of how you were yesterday or how you were a week ago. Everyone goes through difficulties even the people who seem the most perfect. You are not alone no one is, what matters isnt your status or abilities or faults and mistakes but what matters is you, your feeling and emotions they matter. They realy do and one day all the pain will be worth it.

    Reply  |  
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