I really, really hate the word ‘disability’.
That seemed a little grandiose and over-the-top, even for me. Let me be specific; I hate how disability feels like the go-to word for everyone with a condition.
The Oxford Dictionary officially describes disability as ‘a physical or mental condition that limits movements, senses or activities’. Now it’s not an inaccurate term. Far from it. It pretty much umbrellas every single condition out there – physical conditions such as paraplegia, asthma, multiple sclerosis, loss of limbs, and mental conditions such as autism, learning difficulties, mood disorders, anxiety and depression.
But look at the terminologies used. ‘Disability’, ‘difficulties’, and ‘disorder’. We could call these the Evil 3 D’s… but for the sake of realism, we won’t.
It’s not so much the words that are a problem. It’s the overwhelming stigmas and stereotypes that comes with them. The word ‘disability’ immediately implies a challenged individual who cannot function on the same level as everyone else. When some people see someone who is physically challenged, their mind highlights all the ways in which they are challenged. Similar to when people see someone with a mental condition. In worse case scenarios, if they have no knowledge, they end up talking down to a fully-grown adult as if they were a small child.
Now, that is not to say that disability is not a relevant word. Sometimes, conditions create enormous barriers for people, some bigger than others and some that may be nigh impossible to overcome. In those circumstances, can you really blame them for viewing what they have as a disability? If someone was incapable of basic communication with people, performing what others consider basic tasks, it’s hard to call what they have anything other than a disability?
I know someone very close to me with a very severe disability, and if he could, I imagine he would be the first to call what he has a disability. And to be honest, I would too. And he is out of millions of examples of people whose conditions will prevent them from accessing the same opportunities in life as anyone else, justifying the use of the word, ‘disabled’.
By the same token, we don’t want to run the risk of looking at people as either normal functioners or disabled. It’s not like, “OK, Contestant, make your way through Door A or Door B?” Where’s Door C in all this aka the one in-between? Or would that be Door B? Anyway, I digress…
As someone with a condition (Asperger’s Syndrome), I can confess that I have my fair share of shortcomings; I’m geographically blind (I don’t know how many people can take the same journey 3 times to 3 separate destinations, but that’s another story), I have little to no grasps of social cues or deduction (Sherlock Holmes, I am not), sometimes it takes a while for certain facts to sink in (don’t get me started on algebra) and have mastered the art of ‘open mouth, insert foot’. But I don’t consider myself disabled. I don’t consider myself incapable of functioning on a day-to-day basis. I have the right coping mechanisms in place to get me by and keep me sane (though I’m not quite sure about that last one).
And that’s the same for a lot of people with conditions. Whether it is medical support, financial support, educational support, environment support or even peer support, sometimes that’s all it takes to help someone get by just like everyone else.
It’s easy to miss even though disability is a universal word, and some traits may be recurring, but the individuals are… well, individual. Take autism, for example. Similar traits, but it doesn’t turn every autistic into an army of walking calculators. If that were the case, I’d be spending all my time at the casino.
But there are a lot of people who may fit the profile for being disabled, but are still capable of leading productive, fulfilling lives.
Look at the Paralympics, for example. When you see those athletes performing those breathtaking manoeuvres, do you really see some who is ‘limited’? Hell, the word is practically non-existent. Take Trischa Zorn, the most successful Paralympian in the history of the games. The woman was blind from birth and has netted herself 55 medals in the course of her career. If that is not a person who is not held back by her condition, then I don’t know what is.
People with hidden conditions can also offer unique gifts. Autistic people can have unprecendented memories, and some dyslexic individuals have immense visual eyesight. I would have liked to said, “Shoot laser beams from eyes”… but sadly, we don’t live in the Marvel Universe.
And think of all the celebrities with hidden conditions; Satoshi Tajiri=autism, Stephen Fry=bipolar, Lewis Carroll=dyslexia, Will Smith=ADD, Leonardo DiCaprio=OCD. It would be an extreme stretch to attribute their success to their conditions… but it certainly hasn’t disabeled them.
But what terminology do we use for people who still function in spite of their condition? …‘Abled?’ …’Neutrals?’ Disability, ‘difficulty’, and *shudder* ‘special’ are the closest words we have and they’re all easy triggers for setting off the Stereotype Volcano. Hell, I sometimes falling back on the disability labels because there’s very few alternatives.
We need to aim for more practical wording, some form of middle ground between the two, and make sure Disability; the Condition doesn’t get mixed up as Disability: the Person. Yes, it’s a similar word, it’s a guiding light of awareness burning through the fog that is general confusion, but when getting to know particular people, we don’t want to get so dependent on it, that’s the only thing that’ll sink in and get in the way of our understanding of people. This isn’t so much about providing an answer. I’m just as stumped as you are. This is about asking the question and waiting to see which answers pop up…