Disability 101: Stages of acceptance
May 13, 2008
Back in 1969 Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross identified five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Most frequently her stages of grief have been utilized to understand death and dying; however, Dr. Kübler-Ross noted that these stages could apply to grief resulting from any type of personal loss.
In my experience, I’ve found at least two distinct stages a person with a new disability goes through. Immediately after acquiring a disability, people generally enter a stage of fear and panic. Life as you have always known it is no longer possible. Fear engulfs you. How will it be possible to work? How will it be possible to support yourself? How will it be possible to take care of your children? Will your spouse leave you? How will you move about in the community? Will your friends leave you? You feel abandoned and lost and hopeless.
At this early stage, you reach out desperately in hopes of finding someone who will help. This help is truly needed at this point in order to grab onto any sense of security. When I experienced this stage, I had the good fortune of having the wonderful people at Dillon Community Church to help me. They brought hot dinners to my home when I was unable to provide a decent meal for my daughter and myself. They came and cleaned my house when I was unable to do so. They did some simple home repair tasks for me. And they listened to me. They listened to my fears, concerns and worries. I discovered that someone cared and was willing to help and as a result I was able to get my feet under me.
Moving out of this early stage of fear into the stage of acceptance is a tricky business.
I believe you have to have someone who helps you at the early stage so that the panic is quelled. What’s critical here is that it is help you actually need, not help some able-bodied person decided you must need but actually misses the mark. Note to readers: ask the person with the disability what type of help they need.
I also believe that it is absolutely critical for someone to show the disabled person what they can still do. At this point, I was lucky to have the folks at Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center show me that I am still an athlete, that despite the fact I can’t walk worth beans, I can still bike with a handcycle and ski with a mono-ski.
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Once you discover that you still are capable, you begin to feel safer and more confident and you start to realize that life is still possible. In fact, a good life is still possible. You move into a stage of acceptance.
Think for a minute how people with disabilities who are in different stages might react differently to able-bodied people who offer help. A person who is engulfed in fear and loss is going to respond differently than a person who feels confident in their abilities, despite their disability.
Unfortunately, there are some people with disabilities who take a very long time to reach the stage of acceptance, or who never get there. Generally this occurs because they never had the opportunity to find out what they can still do well. They truly believe that they can’t do much of anything. It’s called learned helplessness. We’ll talk more about that in my next column.