Social commentaries

Disability imposter syndrome: Severity is no measure of validity

June 14, 2023

Zach Thompson
Zach Thompson
Photo of Zach when he was a child. The image shows a young Zach with brown hair, brown eyes and wearing a blue striped tshirt looking at the camera while holding a slice of chocolate cake as he sits in a garden.

“How are you?”

It’s a simple question. Three words, three syllables. But we all often shy away from answering it truthfully, especially men. This is why Men’s Health Week offers an excellent opportunity to check in with ourselves and each other.

We live in a world that has begun to recognise everything is intersectional. If a person is marginalised, they can belong to one or more marginalised communities. For example, this means that for men living with a disability, there is a higher chance we will be treated differently than non-disabled men.

Of course, everyone with a disability - even if it is the same disability - will experience things differently. So I can only speak for myself.

When I was putting this piece together, there were times when I got stuck with what to write. When self-doubt crept in, and made me wonder if I was the ‘right person’ for this task.

“Just as we might doubt our abilities in our careers or other areas of life, I have definitely felt imposter syndrome when it comes to my disability.”

Something I still struggle with from time to time is feeling like I am not ‘disabled enough’. Feeling guilty when allowances are made for me or holding back on opportunities targeted at me because ‘others have it worse’ and are therefore more deserving.

I was born with a craniofacial syndrome called hemifacial microsomia. One of the common symptoms of this syndrome is being born without an external ear or the inner ear bones required for hearing, resulting in deafness, usually just on one side. In my case, I am completely deaf on my right side and have worn a hearing aid since I was six.

When I was younger, I attended a group workshop course which saw adults living with hearing loss and deafness mentor children and teenagers and demonstrate, simply by existing, that successful lives were possible.

But one of the big things I encountered was that most of the mentors and the other kids had a different reason for their hearing loss than I did. Many were born with fully-formed outer ears and had cochlear implants, whereas I had a BAHA (bone-anchored hearing aid). No one had my specific disability. Also, because many of them were completely Deaf, they often used sign language, which I did not need or know how to do. So, although no one’s fault, even within ‘my’ community, I felt othered.

An image of Zach as a child, he has brown hair, wear glasses and is drinking from a cup with a straw as he looks into the camera. he is in a home wearing a blue t-shirt.

Bringing this back to men’s health, while there remains a stigma for men when it comes to freely discussing our physical and mental health, I feel my experiences with a lifelong disability have made me much more accustomed to talking about it.

Some of my circumstances, such as having time off school to attend hospital appointments, almost made me feel growing up that, a hospital was the only place I was truly understood.

This, along with needing to have various surgeries over the years, has also desensitised me to medical environments. In that sense, I generally feel pretty comfortable speaking up if my body is giving me any trouble, and the prospect of being in these spaces is not daunting because I’ve been in and out of them for more than 20 years.

Image shows Zach when he was a baby. He is sitting in a high chair wearing a bib with a bee on it and looks up at an adult.

But touching on intersectionality again, while I do have a disability, I am also pakeha, cisgender, straight and male. This means my chances of receiving the best healthcare available in any given situation and not needing to fight to be heard are much higher.

Further, while the focus for this week is men’s health, a korero like this about disability is such a significant opportunity to acknowledge that for women with disabilities, there remain barriers that men (or at least men of my demographic) don’t need to worry about, including the age-old problem of not being believed about their pain. The headlines speak for themselves, such as the stories that go back years about medical professionals failing to provide cis women and others with uteruses with an endometriosis diagnosis, often forcing them to endure years of unnecessary suffering.

“Disability is so broad, and I think it’s vital to remember that you are valid whether you have a visible or invisible condition. There’s no right or wrong way to be disabled.”

Just as we need to remind and encourage our fellow men to speak up about their mental health, we also need to encourage open conversations about disability, not just with our friends, whanau, or others with disabilities, but with everyone.

We exist, and we have a right to take up space.

Photo shows Zach graduating as he stands in front of Spark Arena in Auckland. he is wearing his graduation robes and holds his certificate proudly smiling at the camera. He has long wavy brown hair and glasses.