Disabled – A Mindset

In my years of clinical practice, business and coaching athletes I have come across many different types of people with different backgrounds, physical situations and motivators.   I have come across many different types of “disabled” people as well.  Some would have been categorized as physically disabled, others mentally.  But what I saw was that being “disabled” has nothing to do with your physical or mental condition.  Being disabled is a mindset.  I saw people who disabled themselves because of their attitude, outlook on life and overall inability to achieve self-awareness or self confidence.  They had no sense of purpose in life and that paralyzed them in business, emotionally, spiritually, physically and/or mentally.

In the medical world the label of “disabled” is used often times without regard to the aura that it casts on the individual.  I think it is important to explore what disabled really is, how it applies in different situations and how it affects people.

In my early years in practice I worked in a hospital and acute rehab setting where I worked with people immediately after they had sustained a spinal cord injury or some sort of traumatic neurological event (ie. Traumatic Brain Injury, stroke).  It was very interesting to me to see how different people handled their situations.  It was often the case that I found those who had the right mindset recovered better.

For clarification when I say “recovered better” I am not referring to physically necessarily.  I am referring to the individual’s ability to return to their lives and cope with what happened to them.  They were able to embrace their situation with ownership and empowerment.

In business I have talked with countless other therapists and coaches who talk an amazing talk about how they would do things differently where they work.  In fact, they are so good at talking the talk that they talk themselves right out of doing anything to change their situation.  They inevitably come up with some sort of excuse or reason why they can’t change at this time.  They disable themselves from moving forward.  They disable themselves from failing.

The problem with this mindset is that any successful person will tell you failure is integral to their success and that they probably can’t count the number of failures they have had before they succeeded.  If your mindset stops you from exploring the unknown, pushing into the uncomfortable or going anywhere near something you don’t understand then you are disabled in my opinion.  You have taken away your ability to be truly happy and successful in any way shape or form.

The first inspiring example to me that I came across where an individual defied gravity and the labels of “disabled” came from an 18 year old kid I met in acute rehab.  A horse had crossed the road in front of his car and paralyzed him from the middle of his torso down.  He would never walk again and when I met him fresh out of the accident he couldn’t control his urine or feces nor could he roll or sit up for that matter.

The journey of rehabbing this kid to the point where he was rolling himself out of bed, into his wheelchair by himself and then rolling down the hall with a big pair of bull testicles hanging from the back was life changing for me.  I saw that this kid was far from disabled.  He returned back to his job he had before, still lived with his significant other he had prior to the injury and gave the world a big “FU” when it came to how it perceived and labeled him.

The testicles of a bull he hung from the back were a direct middle finger to anyone looking at his physical state instead of him.  He had inserts made up for his wheels that said “Stop staring, I’ll kick your ass”.  He embraced the situation he was dealt and humor was a way of coping for him.  He now does stand up comedy and to my knowledge is living a full life.

Physically, he is classified as “disabled” but he is anything but that.  In contrast, I know a number of physically healthy, mentally healthy individuals who I would considered disabled by the way they think and approach life.  They live in entitlement, denial of who they are and what hard work they are capable of to change their situation.

When the medical community throws around the word disabled I don’t think we sometimes always think about the impact that can have on someone’s mindset.  Even though clinically we may call them “disabled” or say they qualify for “disability” they are anything but that.  We need to be careful the labels we put into the minds of people who have suffered a trauma physically or mentally.  We can turn them into self-fulfilling prophecies.

I have a young athlete who after a TBI is getting ready to play college golf.  The athlete is one of the strongest people I have ever met and I truly am inspired by them each and every day they are here.  They were pumped, confident and ready to take on the world until a healthcare professional told them they would qualify for disability.

Even though this is true and utilizing it can greatly increase the things they are able to do in terms of commuting and travel, it is paralyzing as an athlete and a person to communicate to them the idea of them being disabled.  They are a person, a strong person, and a talented individual who has the opportunity to do so many great things and inspire so many people that to plant the notion that they are “disabled” because of a traumatic event is ludacris.  It is criminal.

To those of you out there who have a physical or mental barrier that you are working hard to overcome to live your life, do not allow yourself to be defined by a word.  Disabled is a mindset that anyone can have.  If you are offended or angered by being called or labeled “disabled” then I am pretty sure you are not.  You are amazing, inspiring and will do great things if you focus on what you can learn and improve upon every day.

Get better 1% every day, achieve your goals and you will inspire us all along the way.


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