“I don’t see you as disabled.”

The comment seems innocent enough, right? Maybe even a compliment. It’s meant to let someone know we aren’t focused on their apparent difference and want to assure them that we don’t see them “that way” — as something less than or as part of the stereotype.

As I have become more vocal about my own limb difference, my disability, over the past few years, I have had several people say to me directly, “oh, I don’t see you like that; you’re not really disabled,” as though they are doing me a favor by not including me in “that” group. But, I do have a disability (as a matter of fact, 1 in 4 adult Americans do; we are the largest minority group), and it took me a long time to accept that part of myself, over half my life. So, I am not insulted to be part of “that group”; I actually have a sense of belonging now that I spent years without.

And yet, I am left to wonder why we do this to groups who have been marginalized– why do we other each other? Perhaps, it’s because we don’t want to label someone who doesn’t match our definition of “that” group. Telling ourselves, you are different from the stereotypes I have learned. Your difference doesn’t compute with what I have been told about that group, so it causes dissonance forcing me to say you aren’t “that.” In fact, I believe I’m doing you a favor; you don’t have to be “that.” And, if we assume the best intention, it’s meant to be a compliment.

Unfortunately, that’s not how many of us take it; it’s not how I take it anymore. I hear that I shouldn’t want to be part of that group because I am better than that. And, part of my identity isn’t important because it’s uncomfortable for you and what you believe to be true about that group. My difference doesn’t matter. My story and my struggles don’t matter. My lived experience doesn’t matter. It is another way of forcing me to hide, hold shame, and cover that part of myself by not acknowledging my difference and all that goes with it. The “compliment” is not so innocent; it’s actually hurtful.

As I reflect during Disability Pride Month, maybe, we need to start by expanding the word: disability. I am proud of my disability. To me, disability means being part of something rather than feeling isolated, alienated, and alone. It’s my version of “The Ugly Duckling” fairytale finding my swans– belonging, acceptance, and connection. To me, disability means strength and fortitude, even when things are tough. Disability means overcoming challenges and creatively thinking outside the box for solutions. Disability means owning a piece of myself and recognizing that it’s not all of me. I wear my disability like a badge of honor now. Yes, I have a physical disability.

Just as I had to get comfortable and change the definition of disability in my head as something that has strength, that has ability, that has voice, I ask you to help me change the language around disability.

Rather than not seeing me “that way,” I ask you to:

  • Acknowledge my difference but don’t treat me as different.
  • Appreciate my lived experience and be curious about it when I share.
  • Understand that I may need accommodation or support, not as a weakness, but as a strength. Also, realize that it can be challenging for me to ask for the support.
  • Help me reset the definition of disability by recognizing its strengths and realizing that disability itself is multifaceted –it can be visible and invisible.

I own my disability. I own my difference. I am part of this diverse world.


  • Ruth Rathblott

    Expert| Inspirational speaker on diversity, inclusion, belonging; nonprofit executive

    Inspirational Speaker Ruth Rathblott is an award-winning CEO who is committed to creating inclusion for all. She is a leader who has spent her entire career focused on providing opportunities for those who face obstacles. Ruth was born with a limb difference and currently speaks on issues of inclusion and diversity, the gifts of being unique, the freedom of accepting your differences, and rising above life’s challenges. Ruth has been a leader in nonprofit organizations for more than 25 years; 15 of which she spent at Big Brothers Big Sisters of New York City, where she played a central role in its expansion. It was here that she fostered a deep appreciation for inclusion within education and opportunity, which successfully propelled the students to greater achievement. For the past eight+ years as CEO of the Harlem Educational Activities Fund (HEAF), a NYC-based college access and success program for underserved youth, she directed the HEAF vision of providing a continuum of educational, developmental, leadership, and personal resilience opportunities. She currently serves as a Board Member of The Lucky Fin Project. Ruth holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Goucher College and a Master of Social Work degree from Boston University. She was honored as the youngest alum ever awarded the Goucher College Excellence in Public Service Award. In 2014, she was given the Smart CEO Brava Award and profiled as a CEO in the NY Times Corner Office, which featured her passion and motivation for “things I want to be a part of.”  Ruth has also been identified and received the Trailblazer Award from the Community Resource Exchange in 2019, and the Unsung Hero Award from the Female Founders Alliance in 2020. In addition to Corporate Speaking Keynotes, Ruth received Certification from American Management Association in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (2020) and has been a guest on several Webinars and Podcasts — including Sree Sreevisan, Mayshad, Tevis Trower, et al — in 2020-21.