I'm done with rehab: Moving beyond cure

No one sent me to rehab, as the Amy Winehouse song suggests.

After my accident, I sent myself. Scared of the changes rapidly appearing in my body and mind, I asked for help.

I was methodical, attending speech therapy to address my slowed, foggy cognition, my sudden inability to focus and my stutter. After “graduating” from speech I moved on to physical therapy to remedy my shaky balance and consistent headaches. I wanted to feel strong again, to hike again, to resume my confident stride on cracked Philadelphia sidewalks. Finally in the summertime I began vision therapy to retrain my eyes, which, terrifyingly, were unable to hold focus and contact the way they were before. I didn’t want to be socially “weird” or “awkward,” I told the optometrist.

In short, I wanted to be me again. And I was counting on rehab to make it happen.

In our society, rehabilitation is promised as a way to overcome disability, if not cure it entirely. Cure and overcoming go hand and hand. As Eli Clare writes in Brilliant Imperfection: Grappling with Cure, “overcoming is cure’s back-up plan...it means transcending, disavowing, rising above, conquering.” It places responsibility on the individual. It speaks of our society’s deeply internalized ableism that the solution to disability we reach for first is to rehabilitate it, to subsume it, to fix it. And it speaks of my own deeply internalized ableism, which I’ve only recently been able to see and name, that my first instinct with the changes I observed in myself was to rehabilitate them away and “get back to normal.”

Of course, I wanted to regain parts of myself that felt missing. I wanted to be able to go back to work full-time, maintain a conversation in a loud bar, or go for a run. Rehab took on a sense of urgency because it was the one way I could exert agency over my changed “body-mind” (Clare’s term). As I confronted the grief over what I had lost, I held out hope that rehabilitation would deliver it back to me. “The desire for cure, for the restoration of health, is connected to loss and yearning...Cure is such a compelling response to body-mind loss precisely because it promises us our imagined time travel,” Clare writes.

I feel the need to pause and say that I am grateful for the care I received during rehab. I don’t believe I would feel as confident today without the rehab I went through. I had an excellent care team--Darleen, Ross, Diana, Dana and Dr. Kane pushed me, counseled me and supported me. I had health insurance that put care within financial reach.

However, it took me a long time to understand that rehab would never bring the “imagined time travel” that I hoped for. And as Clare so artfully articulates, cure causes us to “devalue our present-day selves.” How many days have I spent longing for a prior self and failing to see all of the valuable traits that disability has wrought? How much frustration have I exerted when I “failed” to live up to the standards of what was “normal” or “natural,” which I so easily achieved before?

I am learning, slowly, to appreciate the changes that seem to be here to stay. I am focused on adaptation, which, as Clare writes, “carries far more appeal than treatment.” I am trying to apply the perspective of D/deaf individuals who focus on deaf-gain instead of hearing loss (see Clare, pages 93-94, or this Psychology Today article).  

In short, I’m trying to flip the ableist script that society has handed me.

In the coming weeks I’ll be writing more about the history and modern manifestations of rehabilitation. If you have an idea or contribution to share, please email me at embry.owen@gmail.com.

I’m also working on curating a set of resources on this website to guide visitors towards great scholarship on disability, accessibility and intersectionality. If you know of a resource (book, article, etc) that belongs on that list, please email me and let me know.