January 02, 2011

There is no such thing as disabled

I've gotten annoyed with the fact that labels have meaning in society which can negatively influence perception of those labeled. Probably nowhere is this more true than with "disability"

I'd like to illustrate why I believe there is no such thing as disabled. I'm not breaking new ground here but I'd really be interested in a reaction since many of the readers are themselves "disabled" or have "disabled" children. 

ability  by Noa Fischer

But first a little background. Growing up in Holland, where treatment (no reference intended to euthanasia here) of "disabled" people is quite advanced, they are referred to as handicapped. This is apparently no longer politically correct in the English speaking world, unless you are talking about the game of golf.

So we have disabled people do we? What makes a person disabled? Let's say there is a building, a ten story office building with twelve steps leading up to the entrance. Remember that, twelve steps going up to the door. A man in a wheelchair comes along and has to be carried up the stairs by passersby, good Samaritans, if he wants to enter the building. He is obviously hampered in his ability to enter, this makes him disabled correct? Wrong. This makes the building disabled.

Look at it this way; people, "able-bodied" are streaming towards the office building on their way to work, easily walking up the stairs to the entrance, taking the elevator to their respective floors, or in some cases again using the stairs.  Now imagine that same building with the twelve steps up to the entrance door removed. How would people get into the building? Since basically they couldn't we could call them disabled then as well. 

The stairs that they are using is a tool of assistance.  

There are actually office buildings without elevators so now imagine that this ten story office building didn't have one. There would be many people who would not be able, due to lack of physical fitness, to climb the stairs to get to their floor. So they are therefore to be considered disabled.

But of course we don't look at it that way. We don't think of an elevator as assisting us because of our inability to climb the stairs, our disability. But when it comes to a man in a wheelchair suddenly it is not OK to use an assistive device unless we label him as "disabled". Therefore his assistive device (a ramp) becomes 'special treatment' which requires special funding. We call a person disabled when actually it is relative to the elements by which we judge - we juxtapose disability on the person, from lack of true perspective.

Since a "disabled" person is not in the majority he/she is a minority. He is not average. But an average is made up out of all people; those more able  as well as differently able. Should we, in all fairness, make people who are not average yet more able, defer from taking the elevator and rather, have them sprint up the stairs?

How about we finally lay disabled to rest? I'd like to hear suggestions please. I'd like William Peace to put all 145 lbs behind this and chime in on what he thinks should replace disabled.

I looked at simply changing the spelling to dysability, but since dys still carries its meaning of bad or wrong, that won't work. Differently able. Different from Differe.

My vote goes for differabled (leading to the use of the word differability). I'm quite serious so please leave your suggestions.


  1. Ok, my friend, allow me to weigh in with some thoughts, but no vote on a new word. We've lived this world of words and labels for many years, both of us. What I have seen in the US is that every time a new descriptor is created, the population attributes a pejorative meaning to it because they have a need to appear to be superior to the other person who has just gotten a new name.
    I was in a statewide "disabilities" advocacy group which fought the legislature for 10 years to change the name of the Department of Mental Retardation to the Department of Developmental Services. Name changed, perception of clients did not...was president of the Arc (Association of Retard Citizens) and we changed the name of the advocacy group to simply Arc a number of years ago. Name changed, perception of clients did not.
    So what is called for is a societal shift that ensures the "differabled" are perceived as human beings with much value and worth no matter if they are a bit differabled or a lot differabled. The big world needs to see our kids as important, as valuable, as capable of loving and being loved, etc. There needs to be an evolution of consciousness and that is only possible when people let go of stereotypes, illusory perceptions, their needs to be superior to someone, etc. Much as it kills me to say this, in the scheme of evolution of human consciousness, dogs having wings will probably occur before all humans being perceived as equally important and valuable.
    Sorry for being so snarly and pessimistic. It wasn't a few years ago, after my son's accident, when the college president and a member of the board of trustees sat in our house because they were planning a fundraiser (Adam's accident was at a college summer camp) for him. They knew that Adam's allopathic diagnosis was persistent vegetative state and the woman said, "My, he doesn't look like a vegetable!" Having to restrain my hands from her throat, all I could say was "And you, madam, don't look like an asshole either." Obviously, they never had the fundraiser.
    Unfortunately, only a handful of us parents and care-takers have a clue about what you are asking for...a change of label or an embrace by others of the dignity of those we love. Sorry for the rant...this topic makes me homicidal. Them again, maybe, I am just a man of little faith.

  2. But Phil, your dog doesn't have wings??

  3. No, Phil you are a man of tremendous faith. Faith in your son and that the process of asserting dignity and cherishing life is one of the highest aims of our evlolution.
    Of course I am not implying that a new name gives new perceptions-just that sometimes a new look, as an evolutionary step, can nudge things in a particular direction. Sadly, change happens when it is ready and not because of "public service announcements"-however justified, like mine.
    I hope my description of how us able bodied people also use assistive technology (stairs) will help me to focus my thinking for future endeavors because in the realm of disability I am a beginner. After all since my son is close to being absolutely disabled, talk of stairs seems almost absurd. But I understand that perceptions can be changed, just that, as pioneers in presenting these hard conditions, we won't likely see much return in our life time.

  4. Words do have some power and I do prefer to use the term 'additional needs' over 'special needs' because it feels more positive but I have to agree that its the perception that needs to change more than the words we use; 'retard' needed to change because of the perception attached to it but has the perception changed?

  5. I suppose that's Phil's point Seth's mum; that the words have changed but little else. I wrote a post ages ago about how doctor's love a diagnosis so that they can see it instead of the patient in front of them *hairs bristling of certain doctors*. To me a word is just a word in that it is not the thing itself; relating, putting into action your beliefs, sees the meaning of the words come to life, as is the case in discrimination.
    Definitely I want to see perceptions change but their is a much greater underlying problem: openness. No one wants to communicate in the true sense of exchange. Who listens anymore? But instead of doing something with themselves people are closing themselves off. Positive communication is a rarity.

  6. I have just posted an entry on my blog Bad Cripple where I address your question. I short, I prefer the word cripple to describe myself.

  7. Bill, thank you for the comment and the response. Obviously I was not looking primarily for a new word to bandy about, but rather, exactly what I am getting, responses by people who have thought long and hard about it as well as lived it. My experience of the matter is for the most part through my son who is so decimated in his existence that you could say he is absolutely discriminated against, with no system or treatment facility which can accomodate his needs.

    Also my discussion of the office building, where stairs function for able bodied people the way a chair functions for you is a statement for myself to achieve more focus on the idea of "altered ability".

    One day perhaps technology will have advanced so far that a child like my son, where lurks a human being capable of love and many more things, will be able to interact with the world and have his status upgraded to that of "cripple".

    The extra weight I awarded you, by the way, was an accommodation for the amount of gumption that I believe you possess.
    Best wishes for health in 2011

  8. It's an interesting issue to consider. Many in my family struggle with challenges. For my children, I created a song to sing about issues, multitudinous and many. And I'm trying to raise them to realize that some people have more issues and greater challenges than others, but that we all face various struggles. I do not think of my girls as disabled by their autism, although my son's challenges are greater because of autism and intellectual impairment. My brother is physically and mentally challenged because of a stroke and mental health issues. My mother struggles with various diseases and chronic pain that make her life challenging, and I suppose, though I don't like to consider it at all, that I am not far behind her in those challenges. It makes life interesting.

    Accommodations make a world of difference in the challenges we all face. Support and acceptance go even further, and finally our attitude about the challenges and issues we face can make the difference between what we consider to be a good life and a bad one.

  9. Kwombles, very well said. Personally I think a simple paradigm shift is needed where the concept of giving (not money or even time) in the deepest sense is accepted. We just have too much survival instinct in us to truly care about a group we don't belong to.
    As to your personal life, it looks as though you've finished what's on your plate and you could use another healthy helping of trouble. O.o

  10. Eric,

    And it's so easy for us to push others out of our group, isn't it, to reject them and dehumanize them in the process? It's enough to set my heart to aching. Psychologists studying altruism are engaged in a debate as to whether we can truly be altruistic since there is usually a pay off of at least getting a dopamine rush from the act of kindness, and therefore it's not really altruistic, and in most cases the chance to feel better about ourselves. It turns out that one of the techniques for helping depressed people feel better about themselves and life is to get them to do something nice, to volunteer. Giving of ourselves, our time, our affection, our emotional investment are, I think, some of the most important things we can do because when we give these things, action has to follow.

    People are endlessly fascinating. :)