The Power of Perception

Something is affecting the disability community as a whole that is rarely mentioned. This topic tends to make others uncomfortable, but it’s essential for disability advocacy. September is National Suicide Prevention Month, and we don’t talk about suicide rates of disabled people enough.

The CDC reports that adults with disabilities are five times more likely to report mental distress than non-disabled people. For some disabilities, this could manifest in anxiety or similar conditions. Often people with a diagnosis of disability have a second diagnosis of depression or other major psychiatric disorder.

Many studies offer the same findings; autistic people are three times as likely to die by suicide than neurotypical people. If the autistic person is neurotypical passing (not an outwardly noticeable disability), it’s more likely that they will be one of those statistics. Autism isn’t the only diagnosis with a significant prevalence, but little research is out there. Even in our national statistics broken down by demographics, disability is not included.

Many have found that the disability itself is not the cause but the negative societal perception of disability. People with disabilities are more likely to face social isolation, are patronized and infantilized, unwillingly serve as inspiration porn, and are subject to outright discrimination. Non-disabled people may place less value on the lives of disabled people, especially in the workplace. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, messaging of protecting those most susceptible to death from the virus, a group that includes people with disabilities, has been met with apathy and disregard by too many. With all of this, and more, it’s surprising that the CDC doesn’t report an even higher rate of dual diagnosis.

We fund many wonderful organizations that are doing great things for people with disabilities. Still, mental health is infrequently a topic of conversation in disability advocacy. Access to mental health care is vital for people with disabilities to truly reach their full potential and live as independently as possible. But suppose we work together to adjust the public perception of disability, centering those messages on the perspectives of actual disabled people. In that case, we may get to a place where people with disabilities no longer feel like outsiders and have overall improved mental health.