Who Me? Self-Esteem for People with Disabilities

Ryan J. Voigt, MA, UW-Eau Claire Counseling Services
Who Me? Self-Esteem for People with Disabilities

What is self-esteem?

Self-esteem is a term used to describe how we view ourselves. It is how we view our worth as a person. It may be more positive or more negative and it is not set in stone. Thus, if someone has low self-esteem, he or she can do things to boost his or her self-concept. When someone has a healthy or more positive self-esteem, he or she is able to accept him or herself "as is." This means acknowledging that we all have both strengths and weaknesses - and that's OK! Healthy or positive self-esteem does not mean that someone has an inflated or self-righteous view of him or herself. One added challenge for a person with a disability may be viewing him or herself as a person first. A disability is only one facet of a person. Thus, for people with disabilities, it's important to allow yourself to view your disability as one component of your life, not the only component. Another issue for people with disabilities may be dealing with discrimination and stereotypes from society. Our society places emphasis on looks, speed, and being the same as everyone else. Thus, people with disabilities might place additional pressure on themselves to try to meet society's impossible standards.

Where does self-esteem come from?

Self-esteem is influenced by many variables while a person is developing his or her self-concept. Parents may provide a crucial role in shaping a child's concept of him or herself. Parents can convey attitudes that the child is independent and successful or inadequate, incapable, and inferior. Thus, lack of confidence does not necessarily equal lack of ability. It may just be a false set of beliefs that a person holds about him or herself. Friends and society can also powerfully influence a person's concept of him or herself. College may be a time when people re-evaluate their self-concept and re-shape their own identities to reflect what they believe is more accurate. For people with disabilities, parents, friends, and society may have shaped your self-image in ways you wish to change.

Consider the following statements:

  • If you have depression and are taking medication for it do you ever conclude: "I can't go out with my friends because I can't drink while taking this medication?" [All or nothing thinking]
  • If you're deaf, do you ever think: "If I can't do a certain job that interests me because I'm deaf, I won't be able to do any interesting job?" [Overgeneralization]
  • If you walk with unsteady gait, do you ever think: "I'm a klutz because I have cerebral palsy?" [Mental Filter]
  • If you have a reading disability, do you ever think: "I just finished a book, but it doesn't count because I didn't read it as fast as other people?" [Disqualifying the positive]
  • If you have ADHD, do you ever think: "I got in trouble for acting up in class; I know I'm going to fail?" [Jumping to conclusions]
  • If you're blind, do you ever think: "I should be able to do anything that my sighted peers can?" [Should statements]
  • If you have a speech impediment, do you ever think: "If this person can't understand me that will be awful?" [Catastrophizing]
  • If you have dyslexia, do you ever think: "I feel stupid having to explain to people that dyslexia is a "real" disability so I must be stupid?" [Emotional reasoning]
  • If you have ADD and you miss an appointment because you didn't write it down, do you think: "I'm so stupid because I have ADD?" [Mislabeling]
  • If you're a wheelchair user and you fall out of your chair because of a crack on the sidewalk, do you ever think: "I should have been more careful and avoided that crack?" [Personalization]

The statements above are examples of things that people with disabilities may say to themselves when their having a bad day. The statements illustrate some examples of thinking errors sometimes called cognitive distortions. These are patterns of thinking that people with lower self-esteem may engage in more than people with higher self-esteem. By identifying and changing some of these errors, a person can begin to change how he or she views him or herself. You have become an expert at playing on a field that is not level as a result of dealing with your disability and peoples' attitudes toward your disability. Read on for more information on self-esteem and disabilities.

Tips to improve self-esteem for people with disabilities

  • Maximize the positive and minimize the negative. Focus on your abilities more than your limitations. Everyone has both abilities and limitations. This is not to say that you don't acknowledge that you have a disability, but rather, by focusing on and developing your abilities you can feel good about all the things you can do.
  • Avoid unrealistic comparisons. Don't get caught up in comparing apples to oranges. Everyone has both strengths and limitations. A person with a locomotor disability may not be able to compete in Olympic ice hockey, but he or she can compete in Paralympic Sledge hockey.
  • Set realistic goals for yourself. Since everyone has limitations, it is not fair to expect yourself to be able to do something unrealistic. This may mean allowing yourself to take the extra time needed to read material and rewarding yourself for persevering. It may not be realistic to expect yourself to read something in the same amount of time as someone without a reading disability.
  • Do not over-generalize. If there is something that you cannot do as a result of your disability, it is not fair to conclude that you are an overall failure. There are many things that you can do. Don't tie all of your self-worth to any one attribute or event. Just because you might be a lousy cook does not mean that you are a lousy person in general.
  • Avoid getting caught using "should" statements. For example, a student with ADHD says, "I should be able to finish this exam in 50 minutes like everyone else in the class." This is an example of a "should" statement that may not be accurate. Accommodations like extra time on tests are an important tool to create equal opportunities for students to show what they know.
  • Appreciate yourself - all of yourself. This means appreciating your disability too. There may be times when you believe that it is more annoying than appreciable, but focus on the positive aspects of your disability. One way to do this is making a list of your strengths including how your disability, or your methods of coping with it, can be an asset.
Posted on BrainLine May 11, 2009. Reviewed July 26, 2018.

By Ryan J. Voigt, MA, University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire Counseling Services. Used with permission. www.uwec.edu/counsel/index.htm.

Comments (26)

Please remember, we are not able to give medical or legal advice. If you have medical concerns, please consult your doctor. All posted comments are the views and opinions of the poster only.

I struggle to know how to define my role within society; as I am unable to work because of my disability. So when people ask me what do I do, I don’t know what to say.

Tell these people about your hobbies and activities. We’re not just defined by the work that we do for money.

^ This. I'm chronically ill, unemployed for several years, graduated with a bachelor's in arts and I'm just wasting my life. My condition varies substantially, not even day to day but literally hour to hour. Just because I did something this morning does not mean I will be able to do it this afternoon, this kind of problem renders me unemployable. So much of our identity is tied up in career or family, people don't respect you if you're not "doing something with your life". It's very easy to hate yourself when there's nothing left to love.

I am Cath and I have MS in NZ. I am seeking positive affirmations particularly where I have unsteady gait/mobility problems and I came across this page when I was looking. I try to be positive but at times it is difficuly and I need to work on this :)

I have MS as well. The first thing I had to do was learn how to laugh at myself. I took way too much, too seriously and ended up a very angry person for a long time. It still happens but it's way less now. I got rid of many of the ugly medical terms for stuff that was happening so I now "glitch" and have a ton of "Happy little accidents".

I do not like the way you worded the first part. Obviously people with disabilities who are hard on themselves have been affected by ableism both internal and external. They don't properly equate their struggles because of what others tell them, they are using disability as a crutch, or reason to to give up, or they're too high maintenance or unreliable in a workplace because they need basic accomodations. They don't use the line of thinking you described. I have ADHD and I autistic, have MS and cognitive and memory problems. I still compare myself to others and call myself stupid, because I am constantly assaulted with toxic positivity and assumptions about the way people with conditions must be thinking. Please take into account the assumptions coming from all sides that influence self worth, it is not only internal, other peoples' views, and co occuring mental illness, can have a massive impact on the view of self aside from the fact of being permanently disabled. Thank you for your time.

thank you so much, I have worn myself out trying to "push on", i am looking for better ways to approach my life with the limitations i have now, this is a wonderful article and comments ~

Thankyou for this, it is useful information.

I am constantly criticized by boss at an office job i have had for 8 months, and i have Traumatic Brain Injury. This is a challenging job that i am sure i would have been much better at fulfilling before the injury that resulted in TBI. Being an Admin. Coordinator in a busy business requires memory, organization skills, etc. that i no longer have. It is very challenging to improve these skills, too.

I need to admit to myself that i am no longer a so-called A+ student, but i am still doing a good job as a C+. It is very difficult to deal with the fact that i am no longer as competent as i was 13 years ago- and it definitely hurts that my boss has such a negative attitude. Constant criticism is harmful!

To anyone/everyone else who has a disability, i can empathize with your struggle at work with tasks and co-workers/bosses. We'll succeed somehow, i hope.

I was born with a learning disability my father was a mathematical statistician my mother was an English teacher. I barely made it out of high school. I took special ed classes ,one of my biggest complaints is one day I can remember the steps on how to do it and people get tired of showing you.. but I think the trick for you will be that you retained a lot of information before the accident and that will tend to stay with you and if you're born with learning disability it's very hard to retain new information so to look at it in another way that information's been stored there even if it's hard to retrieve sometimes definitely life is tough but the gift you were given is your health the fact you weren't a student and all the wonderful things you learned before then and well to retain just find your niche in life don't hide in the shadows and I have one door closes another row before you real courage is not jumping out of an airplane it's going to work everyday even when you're afraid of failure and fighting a good fight be proud of yourself

I really feel this! I totally feel out of place at my work. At worst I feel guilty that they hired me. I work as an arts admin, and I know a lot of people would love to have my job-- I feel like I'm taking someone else's place. Someone who is A+ while I'm a C+ at my best. But I keep telling myself that I have a lot of offer my workplace, and that they could have gotten rid of me if they really wanted to. So I must be doing something right.

There's a reason why they hired you and there's a reason why you're still there employed. They love you and the work that you are doing. Don't think about all the other people that want your job.


Don't overthink these things you're doing great! Overthinking things is what ruins everything. YOU GOT THIS. KEEP WORKING HARD!

Your boss is breaking the Law by harassing and bullying you. As he is your up-line manager, he has a Duty of Care towards your skills development and emotional & physical safety at work and he is breaching his Employment Contract. Start recording in a diary when this occurs. Speak to the person doing this and ask them to stop. Contact your Human Relations Section and report the bullying. Contact your Union with the information so they can give guidance. Good luck. xo

I feel for you

Thanks so much! I am currently needing help and advocacy gaining and keeping employment, and since I have Non Verbal Learning Disability, it tends to keep changing and evolving as I get older. My writing is one of the things I have loved so much, and I'm pretty sure without my disability, my writing skills would not be so on point as they are. Typically for what you don't have as an ability, you gain as a sense or ability two fold somewhere else. I think that's true for many learning disabilities, too.

Thank you. I have lost my identity to my Disability. I will refer back to this again and again. I have many strengths despite my disabilities.

I needed a reminder about being more than my disabilities.

I sometimes forget where things are supposed to be when I clean my a rental house.

I am really very moved by this article

It is interesting, I am disable but from the time I read this article I am going to start new life. Disability is not my life but part of my life!

Thank you for this beautiful article,it opened my eyes a lot,I focussed on my disability a lot that I forgot about other things happening in my life I want to change the way I live my life for me and my kids

Hello, after reading your article I realized that it is not what my disability doesn't allow me to do, it is what I don't allow my disability to do. I want to strive to be a better person each day and the biggest road block I get into is the comparisons. I focus so much on them that I begin to loose sight of everything and it plays into the mental disability I have that probably doesn't even have to do with the disability itself. 

High anxiety, spatial judgement and memory impairment are all  challenges, but I can do needlework, knitting, sewing and other crafts.

I agree with what you say. I believe in accapting my disability as for what it is and make the best of it. Like for example, I can not use my wtrists so I use my elbows more.I use my many disabilities as a possative to help others. In return I feel good about myself. Jodi Sanderson.
Hi, have been feeling quite Low of late, needed this little push in the direction. Thanks, Louise.

hey, how are things now for you?