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  • Writer's picturePeta

When you dream, do you still have a disability?

Do you think that people with a physical disability think they are walking while in a dreaming state? What about people with vision impairment, how do they experience dreaming?

I don't think my dreams, while I am asleep, are 'normal' for someone with a disability.

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You can follow Peta's personal account on Instagram @petahooke

References used in this episode:

Visual dream content, graphical representation and EEG alpha activity in congenitally blind subjects


Episode Transcript:

Peta [00:00:02] Hello and welcome to The I Can't Stand Podcast, the podcast, answering your questions on what life is like when you have a disability. My name is Peta, I'm your host and I'm an open book. If you'd like to ask me a question there are three ways you can do so. Via my Instagram at @petahooke via email at or by my website, OK, without any further ado, let's get into it.

[00:00:47] This week's question came from Mikaela.

Mikaela [00:00:50] Mikaela asked me, Peta when you sleep, do you dream that you've got a disability or do you dream without your disability?

Peta [00:01:01] I've really enjoyed researching this topic because, to be honest, I've never thought about whether other people with physical disabilities dream that they can walk or people with vision impairment have visual dreams or people who are hearing impaired hear the sounds of birds or traffic. It never crossed my mind. So, as someone with a physical disability, I do dream that I can walk, I know. I can hear your mind's exploding. No, not really. Yes, I can dream that I can walk, which is really odd because I've never walked unassisted. And I never really thought about the fact that I dream walking to be significant until I started to look at research and I found out that I'm not what is meant to happen.

[00:02:00] So, I did lots of research, which I will link in the show notes if you're interested, but basically here is the easy, digestible version. Experts have found that regardless of what sort of disability you have, if you've had your disability from birth and therefore have never been able to do certain things, like hear or see or walk or stand, you're highly unlikely to dream about doing those activities. I dream about doing those activities. I don't know whether it's because I try and visualise walking a lot. I often while I'm sitting in the shower, just wonder whether I could just put one foot in front of the other and get into my wheelchair. But the connection in my brain just won't let me do it. So I do wonder whether my obsession with walking then transfers into my dreams, but I only dream that I can walk in really good dreams. Which psychologically is an interesting thing to have to admit that I associate walking with positivity because in my day to day life, that's certainly not how I see my life. I see my life is pretty positive and I really like my life despite not being able to walk. But yes, in good dreams, I can walk, I can run. I can do all the things that I can't do now, sitting here talking to you today.

[00:03:40] But I don't know about you, it's not often that I have purely happy dreams. Half the time a dream can go from being happy and then I'll have an obstacle. So the obstacle quite often has to do with my disability. So I snap back and know instinctively that I have cerebral palsy in my dream. So whether it's somebody offering to go to a cafe. I'll worry that they'll pick somewhere with a step or all of a sudden I really need the bathroom and every bathroom in my dream either has a step or the toilets are inaccessible to me. So it's funny how a positive dream if it has an obstacle, I automatically snap back into being the reality of what it means to be Peta.

[00:04:33] In my nightmares, I'm more likely to have a disability, I'm never more affected than what I am in reality, so I can always speak, I can always use my arms. That is all completely normal. But in nightmares, normally it's to do with my vulnerability. So whether it's somebody unplugs my wheelchair and then I can't move in, the big scary monster tries to get me. Or if I have a nightmare and somebody running after me and my wheelchair battery goes flat, I try and walk. But because I know I can't, the monster eventually catches up with me because I will never be fast enough. Similar dreams to many people with or without disabilities, but my own interpretation based on my own needs and vulnerabilities. So, yes, I do dream that I have a disability and I also dream that I don't have a disability, and it's not like I dream of the day that I get cured or anything like that. I just happen to not have a disability in that particular dream.

[00:05:45] When I was looking at the research of how dreams affected other people, I realised my experience was somewhat unusual. While researchers, in general, can't reach a consensus as to why humans dream when they look at the subgroup of people with disabilities, they've mainly concluded that people with disabilities dream in two distinct ways. So regardless of your disability, if you acquired your disability from birth like it did, you are less likely to dream about having abilities that you've never had. So it's highly unusual for someone like me who has never walked to dream of walking. Unless you acquired your disability later on in life. So regardless of whether you were 8 or 32 when you acquired your disability, those participants in the study were more likely to dream in both circumstances. So they were likely to dream as themselves prior to, say, an accident and also the current reality of themselves after the accident.

[00:07:05] This was across the board of all disabilities, regardless of what journal article I read, people with disabilities who acquired it later in life do still maintain some of that ability when they're in their REM or dreaming state. Which is remarkable to think of the brains' power that even though you lost your ability to hear. Inside your own head, you can still hear the birds in your dream. I also found that for people who did lose a major sense, whether it be our sight, our hearing, our touch, our smell or our taste if one sense is being taken away like sight participants reported that they're more likely to focus on other senses in their dream. So, for example, they could be eating a really delicious apple pie and they could smell the cinnamon. Whereas for those who are sighted, we might be focussing on the colour of the pastry and how flaky it was, for example. So it's really interesting how the brain still uses those scenes that we rely on day to day and focuses in on the ones that we use the most.

[00:08:31] There's of course, no way of knowing whether our senses have been distorted to us after we lose an ability. So if someone who is hearing impaired still dreams that they can hear a plane in the sky, there is, of course, no way of knowing whether their interpretation has changed over time, whether that memory has blurred somewhat. But both people with hearing and vision impairment who became disabled later in life still reported on having the ability and experiencing those sensations throughout their dreams. I also looked at what it's like, for people with intellectual disabilities, the main focus of research at the moment seems to be a lot around autism. Because many people with autism report difficulty sleeping, there are lots of reports about insomnia and why people with autism are more likely to experience insomnia. But for the purposes of this podcast, people with autism, because they struggle to sleep, they also have found that have a shorter period of REM sleep, which is the period of which we dream as humans. It does make sense that because people with autism are more likely to experience disturbed or interrupted sleep. They also are less likely to dream or have shorter experiences in the dreaming state.

[00:10:13] So the short answer is yes, people with disabilities dream both with and without their disability, the rate of whether we do experience dreams with an ability that we ever did have or never had varies from person to person, but people with disabilities do dream. If you have a disability I'd love to hear your experiences with dreaming. Not only have hopefully you guys learnt something today, but I've also learnt something about myself.

[00:10:50] Thank you for listening to this week's episode about dreaming. I hope you enjoyed it. If you listen on Apple podcasts, can I ask you to write and review the podcast? It really helps me get found throughout the platform. Or if you're on Spotify, click that little heart. I also want to take this moment to say thank you for all your support over the last six months. This Tuesday marks six months since the podcast was first released. It's been an absolutely fantastic experience and a wild ride And I hope you've learnt something along the way and I might have given you a giggle as well. Until next week, guys. Have a good one bye.


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