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  • Disability, Coping, and Identity
  • Shahd Alshammari (bio)

What does it mean to be disabled in a society that is always pushing for normalcy? There has been little, if any, scholarly attention focusing on Eastern perceptions and understandings of disability. Global disability research is still often neglected. We now have statistical data, but hardly any personal, real, and lived experiences of women with disabilities. These voices are hardly ever heard. Academia boasts the flourishing field of disability studies since the 1990s, but has yet to achieve a global perspective. Critical attention is needed. In this comment I attempt to be corrective of this lack of attention to perceptions of disability in the East. I aim to shed light on an altogether different understanding of disability and what it means to be a disabled “Eastern” woman, using my own experience as a starting point.

I am a hybrid, born to a Palestinian mother and a Kuwaiti (Bedouin) father. At a very young age, I realized that I did not quite fit any category. As a hybrid, you occupy two spaces, two cultures, and start to feel like you have more than one identity. At school, I was not accepted by the Kuwaiti group, the dominant group, and yet I was not one of the foreigners, the outsiders. Language itself was difficult, I spoke two dialects, and because I tried to fit in, I ended up with many linguistic errors. I never really felt like I belonged. In more ways than one, I was not “pure-blooded” and not the ideal woman. By the time I graduated high school, I was diagnosed with a neurological illness, multiple sclerosis (MS). Add this to the mix: now I was lacking both in bloodline and the body. MS is a chronic and often disabling disease that takes away your basic abilities to function properly. It starts off in the central nervous system, the powerhouse of the body. MS usually affects people in their 30s or 40s. Very rarely does it affect anyone younger than twenty. I was only eighteen, and there was no explanation for it. MS is not genetic, not contagious, and science is still yet to discover why it affects some people instead of others. It used to be considered a disease that only affects Caucasians or people who live very far away from the equator. But it is on the rise in other parts of the world. There is a theory that after the Gulf War in 1990 many Kuwaitis were affected because [End Page 361] of the burning of the oil wells and the toxic pollution that took place. I was five years old and living in Kuwait during the war, and I remember black skies, not being able to tell day from night. In MS, the immune system attacks itself, the body decides to reject itself. It mistakes its own cells to be invaders, attackers of the body. What does it mean to say that my body has rejected my own, ethereal self? I had no idea. Clueless as to what was happening, my life changed at eighteen. First, I had plans to study abroad. I could not, because of my physical limitations, as I was having trouble walking and using my hands. I ended up at Kuwait University, where I studied English literature. My passion was English literature, it has always been the greatest commitment of my life. As cliché as it might sound, I devoted myself to my studies during my undergraduate years. I knew I wanted to be a professor and I knew it would be no easy road. I learned to pace myself, to find alternative ways of writing, using the pen. I learned to conserve my energy levels. But mainly, I adopted a few techniques to try and live as “normal” a life as a student as possible.

Back in the day, before I ever learned what ableism is all about, before I identified as a Disability Scholar, I was very ashamed of my body. And I was clueless as to how I could deal with it amongst my friends, my colleagues, and my professors at university. When I tried to tell people, their reaction would...


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pp. 361-365
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