Broken Mirror, A Million Shades of Light

Falling is a strange phenomenon.

One instant I’m going about my day, and the next instant, without any notice, without any intervening time, I find myself face down on cold tile or rough concrete.

Falling is a strange phenomenon. One instant I’m functioning normally, and the next, because I tripped over Harvard’s broken sidewalks or fell down stairs that I hadn’t seen, everything screeches to a halt; because I can’t get up, I brace for the panic of the people helping me stand, take stock of my scrapes and bruises, and sheepishly walk away, my eyes locked on my feet to prevent another tumble.

Falling, in short, is a mirror that reflects the extremes of my life, forcing me to acknowledge that I’m disabled. Every day I encounter mirrors like these, reflections that pull me out of whatever I’m doing to remind me of the impassable obstacles I face.

I’ll be blunt: being disabled kind of sucks. So why, then, despite all my falls, despite everything, am I glad that I’m disabled? Why am I proud?


Like many disabled people, I have a complicated relationship with disabled identity. That I’m glad to be disabled doesn’t mean I enjoy it, and as with all preferences, it’s valid for someone to choose not to be glad; in fact, I hated my disability until a few years ago, and I’d never blame myself for that. Nor am I proud of my disability in the way that someone might be proud of their scars, as signs of the adversity they’ve overcome.

I’m proud of my disability because disabled is what I am. It’s definitely not all of me — “video game nerd,” “multicultural family,” and “amazing sense of humor” also come to mind — but it’s what I am nevertheless. “Disabled” is a fact, an identity, and a community, and sugarcoating it is only an act of denial and erasure that helps nobody.

Because “disabled” is a fact.

“Disabled” isn’t a bad word, contrary to the ever-growing list of euphemisms. No, I’m not “special needs.” I won’t be defined by society’s failure to implement universal design. No, I’m not “differently abled.” It’s patronizing, unless I’ve missed a superpower I got in exchange for being disabled. And no, I’m not “handicapped” or “dis-Abled” either.

I’m not calling myself lesser, I’m stating a fact. Don’t tiptoe around it for your own comfort, just say it: I have a disability, so I’m disabled. Some disabled people have even reclaimed the historically derogatory term “crip” to describe themselves, which now sees standard usage in disability studies. Nothing will change while people avoid seeing us as we are.

Because “disabled” is an identity.

I sometimes think about Other Ben, the Ben in some parallel universe who doesn’t possess the 150-in-8 billion gene mutation that I do, who didn’t win the lottery that he never entered. Does Other Ben walk up stairs without a second thought? Can he recite all of Mario’s power-ups? What’s it feel like being taller than five feet? Does he go to Harvard? Would my friends like him more than they like me?

I don’t know, and ultimately, I don’t care. I’ve realized that we’re different people. Of course, we’d share some similarities; but we couldn’t pick each other out of a crowd, read the other’s feelings, or even name their hobbies. We live different lives in different bodies and minds.

So if I were offered a magic cure for my disability, I think I’d turn it down. I’d rather stay disabled. I’d be tempted, sure. But losing my disability would be losing part of myself, an aspect of my experiences that helps shape all my actions, beliefs, and dreams.

As disability rights pioneer Judy Heumann said, exemplifying the social model of disability, “Disability only becomes a tragedy when society fails to provide the things we need to live our lives.”

So what is disability before our built environment transforms it into the tragedy the world sees it as? It’s an identity. Yet it’s so much more than that, too.

Because “disabled” is a community.

I rarely feel as at home as I do among disabled people. My best friend since third grade, who passed away two years ago but still teaches me whatever I know about kindness, strength, and sarcasm; my stay at the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp, a camp for disabled children, where I discovered what true happiness and belonging feels like; my friends in the Harvard Undergraduate Disability Justice Club, where we support each other after hard days and argue over whether King Princess is objectively hot. Disabled people aren’t a monolith, but we have a distinct culture: one of listening, empathy, and never leaving anyone behind, a perspective I bring with me through each day.

Because “disabled” is a life, and I’m proud to be part of it.

One night at Hole in the Wall, I was trying to identify constellations in the sky. I realized I’d never truly looked up at the sky before.

“Remember to look up at the stars,” my counselor responded.

Living a disabled life means that I fall, and as I lie stunned, I see my reality of existing in this world reflected on a mirror of concrete or tile. But it’s a broken mirror, cracked by many falls; and in its brokenness, it refracts light into a million component shades, revealing not only my struggles, but — if I focus beyond my newly-acquired scrapes and bruises — all the smiles and tears of my life.

And so, even while I keep my gaze trained on my feet, I witness the starlight above, and I’m proud.

Ben T. Elwy ’23 lives in Quincy House. His column “Living a Disabled Life” appears on alternate Tuesdays.