The beginning of each semester is always punctuated by awkward conversations during my professors’ office hours about my learning disability. I sheepishly dole out disclaimers such as, “Just thought I’d make you aware, sorry,” or “Sometimes I might seem like I’m not listening, I’m sorry,” and on and on. At the pit of my stomach resides the fear that my invisible disability will be perceived as nonexistent: What if my professor thinks I’m exaggerating? What if it sounds like I’m just making excuses?
As soon as I started school, it became glaringly obvious that there was something off about me. Growing up in Ukraine, I never knew another person with a mental disability. Even the term “mental disability” was distant and poisonous — it evoked gruesome insane asylums from horror films, with thunder and screams reverberating in the background.
Because there was “no such thing” as a learning disability, I was branded as a lazy, unmotivated scatterbrain. My teachers and parental units figured that all I needed was some good ol’ discipline and a sound work ethic to whip me into shape. Thus began the constant shaming for failing to act neurotypical: “Why can’t you act like a normal person? What’s wrong with you?”
My entire existence became an exercise in feigning normality. Despite my utmost efforts, I would inevitably slip up. I became accustomed to spouting a constant string of apologies whenever I’d lose my key for the umpteenth time, when I was late to everything and when I’d forget something that was said to me seconds ago. Over time, “sorry” became an idiosyncrasy rather than a conscious, intentional statement.
I became inseparable from this reflexive apologizing; it permeated my daily interactions in all forms of communication. “Sorry” is my catchphrase. I slip sorrys into texts and emails, sprinkle them generously into conversations, tack them casually onto the ends of statements. When maneuvering around the kitchen in my co-op, dodging past bustling kitchen traffic, I move to the rhythm of my muttered “sorry.” It’s less of a choice and more of a compulsion.
My habit of apologizing followed me overseas when I immigrated to the United States, with my learning disability in tow. My mother, the quintessential immigrant parent, expected nothing short of perfection in school. On some evenings, she would stand over my shoulder as I struggled to finish worksheets, wielding her weapon of choice: the red fly swatter. “Did we come all the way to America for you to slack off?” she’d ask, voice heavy with warning, fly swatter quivering. This approach helped my grades, but didn’t help my disability.
As I got older, not even my neat little rows of As could veil my learning disability. Toward the end of high school, my all-nighters grew more and more frequent until I only slept every other day. My workload was comparable to that of my peers, who seemed to somehow also have time to sleep and send Snapchats and go to the beach on weekends. Meanwhile, I was constantly frazzled and apologizing, always ten minutes late, running on nothing but caffeine and nerves.
I remember asking myself, Why is this so difficult for me? Why do I have to work twice as hard as everyone else just to get half as far?
Now, studying at UC Berkeley with a diagnosis and Disabled Students’ Program, or DSP, accommodations, I have ascended to a different realm. A realm where invisible disabilities not only exist but are actively discussed and supported.
There’s a DSP mailing list that fills my inbox with weekly updates about the steady stream of DSP-related workshops and events. At one of these events, I wandered around, looking at the artwork and listening to students perform spoken-word poetry about their experiences being disabled. It was a showcase, a celebration. I felt acceptance, even in spite of that pesky thought that bubbled in the back of my head: What would my family think if they saw me here?
Even in this community that attempts to heighten awareness and acceptance around mental disabilities, it can be difficult for BIPOC to feel comfortable taking up space and asking for what we need. In a white-dominated institution like UC Berkeley, it’s not surprising that the DSP community is also white-dominated. This can feel somewhat alienating to students of color who weren’t raised with the mindset that disability is something that should be recognized, understood and celebrated.
Going from an environment where mental disability is stigmatized to one where it is uplifted is quite the culture shock. Unlike those who may have gotten diagnosed as children or grown up where invisible disabilities are accepted, we are still learning to be unapologetic about who we are and feeling comfortable within our disabled identities.
Students of color, and people in general, with invisible disabilities are still struggling to undo years of internalized guilt for being told to “act like a normal person” or made to believe that we are somehow inadequate. While being immersed in a healing and validating environment is a great start toward self-acceptance, people like me must actively work to deconstruct ingrained stigma in order to feel truly unapologetic for who we are.
I’m at the sink at my co-op, cleaning a few mismatched plates. I rack them and step away, murmuring a casual “sorry” to a housemate who’s been waiting for me to finish so she can use the sink.
“There’s nothing to be sorry for! You’re allowed to exist,” she reassures me, “We’ve got to work on that apologizing habit.”
“Sorry!” I instinctively blurt, then correct myself, “I mean…yes.”