Don’t Stereotype Me: Misconceptions About Brain Injury

By Matt Collura

Without any knowledge of who I am, preconceptions about me may begin to cycle through your head when you first see me using my walker or my wheelchair. Sometimes, I wish I had a sign around my neck stating that I have trouble walking because of a brain injury I suffered in a snowboarding accident.   

  Often I want people to think of me as just an average person, without seeing my wheelchair or walker, and without knowing I injured my brain. The human brain is so complex that we do not completely understand brain injury. We may sometimes even form incorrect ideas about injuring our brain. There are so many misconceptions about brain injury that it makes little sense to review each one. Instead, I will review some of the reasons incorrect ideas come about.

  Common misconceptions typically arise as a result of one or more of the following pitfalls: generalizing, stereotyping, and assuming.

  People generalize brain injury because it offers a concrete explanation to something abstract and idiosyncratic. Symptoms such as impulsiveness, poor memory, or physical disability are often assigned across the board to brain injury. But we are too complex to say anything concretely about the injury of our brain. A doctor may say a person who injures the brain’s frontal lobe is bound to be more impulsive as a result. However, that same person may work very hard and be exceptionally disciplined after the injury to keep his or her impulses in check.

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  In the same realm as generalizing is stereotyping. People may stereotype “brain injury” with an image of an elderly patient who has extreme physical limitations. In reality, some brain injury survivors are quite young, and some work extremely hard to overcome physical setbacks. The brain is so complex, and our lives are so complex, that any stereotype applied to brain injury may be greatly shortsighted. Brain injury does not discriminate based on age or demographic, and we should not think of a certain type of person when we think of brain injury.

  Assumptions about brain injury are too broad to classify an occurrence whose effects are variable and specific. For instance, physical disability does not necessarily mean cognitive disability. One of the sharpest brain injury survivors I have met is extremely physically limited. Although she uses a motorized wheelchair, her rationale is outstanding.

  This phenomenon works the other way around. Ambulatory folks with no apparent physical limitations may be working hard to overcome cognitive challenges.

  Preconceptions about brain injury lead to misconceptions. Just as we are all different individuals, every brain injury is different. In order to have any understanding of someone’s brain injury, we need to have sufficient exposure to the brain injury survivor in question. The only concrete thing about brain injury is that no brain injury is concrete.

On March 9th, 2011, Matt Collura suffered a traumatic brain injury in a snowboarding accident and was in a coma for weeks. Until 2011, he was an avid runner. A three-sport captain in high school, Matt graduated with a degree in biochemistry from Boston College and a master’s in architecture from NJIT. Doctors predicted that even if he regained consciousness, he would never walk again. Since he regained consciousness, he has regularly been proving doctors wrong. One day, he plans to run again.