“For stigmatized people, the idea of normality takes on an exaggerated importance,” Davis (2013) explains (p. 148).
For this group of individuals with brain injuries, reconstructing identity around injury over disability serves as a problem-focused coping strategy that helps them eliminate the stress and uncertainty involved with brain injury and regain a semblance of normalcy in their lives.
Choosing between injury and disability points to survivors’ process of identity reconstruction. Adhering to “injury” over “disabled” seems to help many people understand their limitations as “not [their] fault” and as “still in recovery.”
Carly completely agrees with the need for distinguishing between injury and disability, and for the first time during our interview, I see her become suddenly enthusiastic about an issue.
The excitement in her eyes juxtaposes the demure personality she has displayed throughout the first half of our meeting, and soon I learn the reason for her sparked interest, even anger.
The “disability” label is something she “fight[s] against all the time,” she tells me, eager to tell me more about the stereotype.
“I had a brain injury; okay, technically I still have one, right. Whatever … I’m still the same me… I don’t want other people to see me as disabled, you know? I’m just slightly less capable than everyone else. Does that mean I have a disability? Well, it shouldn’t. There’s a difference between being disabled and being brain injured.”
Is there? What’s the difference?
When the participants of my study see their injuries as still in recovery, they see room for improvement and someday moving past their injury, whether or not that’s actually possible; they see opportunity for positive coping, even though it might involve ableist thinking.
Weiten and Lloyd (2008) describe problem-focused behaviors as actions pointed towards diminishing or eradicating stressors, which is what participants are doing when they eschew disability labels – they eliminate stress from the stigma that they perceive as associated with disability, and therefore feel they cope better with the stress of living with brain injury.