When I started college I made my first disabled friend. His name was Clayton.
I should probably mention Clayton wasn't actually my first friend with a disability. I'm my own first friend with a disability, of course, and aside from that I went to a high school with a high population of students with learning disabilities and mental health issues, and also knew a few kids with chronic illnesses. I didn't consider any of these people, or myself, to fit into the category of "disabled."
What made Clayton my first disabled friend, then? He was the first person I met who had a visible mobility disability, and at the time that's what the word disabled meant to me.
Having a disabled friend was a new experience, like having a friend from a country I had never been to. I asked him how he felt about the word lame. I worried about saying things that would be offensive to "a disabled person." During an intentionally shocking period of our first year, I earned the right to call him a gimp while he would greet me by saying, "Get away from me, you stupid dyke!"
From pretty early on, when Clayton talked about his CP, I would talk about my autism (or my ex-autism as I thought of it at the time. I used to think I had recovered from autism and was just really lazy and stupid, but I'm sure I've mentioned that before). It just seemed on-topic. By the end of our sophomore year I was sort of maybe knocking on the door of coming around to identify as disabled. Clayton told me by his estimation I belonged in the club.
Then we didn't see each other for more than a year.
When we saw each other again, I was Super Disabled and thought of everything in a political way that he didn't necessarily relate to. I always felt privately like my opinions were less legit because I didn't have a "real" disability. Actually if I started to feel like he was outranking me in terms of being disabled, I would start talking about all my mental health problems to make myself feel better. Clayton told me that whenever I left the room, his roommate would be really worried about me.
One time I referred to us as disabled and Clayton said he saw himself as having cerebral palsy rather than being disabled because being disabled seemed like a much more general, worse thing that implied he couldn't do some things he could actually do. This made me wonder about something I guess I hadn't thought through before. Basically I was thinking that if you have a disability that people don't think is legit, identifying as disabled is a relief, but if everyone sees you as disabled, it's kind of something you can be trapped in and not want to identify with.
Then we didn't see each other for like nine months.
After college I came to stay with Clayton and his mom so I would have a place to live while I figured out a job and apartment. Instead, we started drinking and watching all of Vampire Diaries. After a few weeks of this I felt lazy so I decided to start my project where I would interview people asking them if they identified as disabled, and why or why not. I thought it would be clever to interview Clayton since I had initially seen him as the only disabled person I knew, but in terms of identity, I was disabled and he was not. But Clayton said, "Actually I consider myself disabled now. I think I didn't before because people were always telling me I wasn't really disabled."