No, I’m Not Disabled, I’m “Differently-Abled”

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Photo by Waldemar Brandt on Unsplash

For a long time, I and many people like me have found the word “disabled” offensive. The prefix “dis” means to be apart from something in a bad way. For example, “discontinued” usually means that a product was faulty or not popular enough to continue making it, so it’s been discontinued. “Disadvantaged” means that someone or some people do not have the same advantages as their peers, so they are not in the same  position as them in their life. “Disallowed” means to be a behaviour that isn’t acceptable to a governing body and therefore isn’t allowed, and so on.

So when someone is disabled, it usually means that they are unable to do something, and that it impacts them in a negative way. They’re broken and unable to do the same things as everyone one else. We essentially write them off before we even know the person.

Isn’t that a very negative and cruel thing to do?

I want you to think of someone that you know, and what ability they have that you admire but don’t have in yourself? Why don’t you have it? Could you achieve it?

If not, then isn’t that a disability?

Who sets the definition for what is and is not required? Don’t we all have a disability with something, somehow, in some way?

When I was young, I was diagnosed with arrested non-shunted borderline hydropephalus, mild spina bifida and scoliosis, mild cerebral ataxia and a low-tone hearing loss. Within a few years of my diagnosis, white markings appeared on the road outside our driveway. They marked one very damning message outside my home: DISABLED.

That was me, condemned.

The problem with being “disabled” is that it immediately labels the individual as not enough. Not good enough, not smart enough, not fit and able-bodied enough. But many disabled people are enough, it’s just that sometimes they just need some support from someone or something in order to be able to manage the other tasks they can’t do quite so well.

But how many able-bodied people need a little extra help and support sometimes? Admit it, how often have you asked someone for a spell-check or asked for some assistance in some way?

As an excellent example, let us look at Stephen Hawking. Stephen Hawing lived with Lou Gehrig’s disease and depended on a motorised wheeichair and his famous eye gaze device just to be able to get around and communicate with the world, yet he was nothing short of an exemplary genius. He had thoughts and insights on the world that could inspire generations and his sense of humour was second to none.

How many people could claim they have a mind like Stephen’s? Very few, if any.

A funny story for you, I could never do gymnastics at school. Along with my scoliosis, I also developed hypermobility which doctor’s told my parents was double-jointedness, and to enrol me in a gymnastics class as soon as possible. I later attended a sports centre  where I got promptly removed for being the slowest in my class. Gymnastics had never really been my forté, after all.

But having failed in one area, doesn’t mean I go on to fail in all areas.

I’m not disabled, I’m differently-abled.

So what if I can’t do handstands, cartwheels and forward rolls? I’ve won trophies in dog handling.

So what if I was the slowest in my class on the track? I’ve won awards for my leadership skills in canoeing.

I may not have succeeded in gym class, but I’ve far exceeded many of my able-bodied peers in life and living. I may need jar openers and grab rails, but I dress well and I’m known for my cooking capabilities.

What skills am I required to have, or not have, in order to pass as able-bodied? Maybe I’m not disabled, I’m just differently-abled instead.

We need to do away with the term “disabled” and embrace words like “support” for better equality. Grab rails and disability aids need to stop being advertised as tools for disabled people and be advertised more inclusively as support aids. Everyone needs a little support in some way sometimes, and that’s perfectly okay. If calculators and spell checkers are a normal part of our society, then so should my grab rails and chunky cutlery be. 

Be Bold, Be Bright, Be Beautiful,

Helen xx

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3 thoughts on “No, I’m Not Disabled, I’m “Differently-Abled”

  1. “Who sets the definition for what is and is not required?”
    In the United States, the federal and state governments write the definitions through ongoing policy processes. The policies in place are the collective effort of lawmakers, officials, and engaged citizens such as yourself.
    The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is the federal standard. Where I live, the Texas with Disabilities Act (TDA) is a stricter standard. Every building must pass the inspection of a licensed building inspector for myriad and specific accessibility features from ramps, to automatic doors, to TTY, to the precise inch in height of handrails, and so on.
    Federal and state definitions are imperfect; they tend to overstate and understate what they seek to describe. The challenge is to be as inclusive as possible without being too inclusive. Unfortunately and unjustly, some people “fall through the cracks” of these definitions regardless of their personal circumstances. Disability isn’t the only example of this issue with government definitions. Homelessness, poverty, family, domestic violence, employment, rape, and intoxication are a few examples of things that are difficult to define. Some people who should be excluded wind up qualifying, and some people who should be included are disqualified. Fortunately, The ADA and other state disability guidelines are alive, so they are open to redefinition and therefore improvement. The advocates who seek to improve disability policies are some the more successful advocates of any fundamental right.
    I agree with you that people with disabilities are definitely able enough in something, but I think that also goes for everyone. There are things people can and cannot do. At the same time, I loathe stigmatization, and I wish people would be less ignorant when interpreting other people.
    Other than support, are there other words you believe are more precisely inclusive and less stigmatized than disabled? I can only think of “access” as a root word. What do you think?

    1. Thankyou for your informative reply, Dom. It is interesting see how the situation unfolds in other parts of the world. Indeed, here in the UK, there are a series of tasks which are set out by disability experts and the government and an inability to complete them renders you disabled, regardless of your other abilities. More interestingly though are the situations behind the event. For example, someone who cannot spell because of dyslexia is considered to have a disability, but somebody who cannot spell because of a disrupted education or lack or support at home does not meet the criteria. My RSD is considered a disability which requires adaptive aids, but arthritis would be considered a condition, despite disabling the sufferer. At what point, outside governing bodies, can we decide what is a disability, a condition or an impairment? Could I be considered impaired given that I am quite able to do things, with the help of a gadget or two?

      I think “condition” could perhaps be less stigmatized. If we think of a condition, it means that there are needs that person has in order to achieve their objective, regardless of their body (for example, a troubled education because of bullying could then be considered a condition for difficulty with speling). I feel it should be much better than disabled, which almost immediately writes the person off. What are your thoughts?