I’m sure we can all agree that it is rather difficult to get through life, even without any special obstacles in our way. Imagine how much more difficult it would be if one of our senses was not available to use, or a body part was not functioning, or our mental processes were outside our control.
Many millions of people around the world experience these problems and thus have a more difficult path than the rest of us. These problems are typically called “disabilities” and the people who experience them are typically called “disabled”. But what do we really mean by disabled? And is there a difference between a strict, literal definition of a disability and actually being disabled? To illustrate what I mean, consider the following three examples:
1. The daughter of a relative of mine was born with severe cerebral palsy. She could not speak, was confined to a wheelchair and had little to no control of bodily functions. She needed extensive assistance in almost every aspect of life.
2. Myself. As I mentioned in earlier posts, I have Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). I have a very short attention span and thus have difficulty staying focussed on a single topic and can be impulsive. This has affected my school performance in the past, and has affected my work performance if my medication was not correctly adjusted.
3. A 13-year-old boy is deaf and has been since birth. He is very intelligent, can read lips and uses sign language and seems in every way normal except for his deafness.
Of these three people, who is disabled? One of them? Two of them? All of them? None of them?
Depending on how we define the term, any of the above answers could be considered correct. But briefly, I think most people would agree that my relative’s daughter was disabled. There is not much of a way to see it otherwise. As for myself, ADD is considered a learning disability and it has affected my functioning at times, which should mean I would be disabled. However I do not consider myself disabled and to most people who know me, I am not disabled. The third case presents some very interesting issues. But first some background.
This case example, which inspired this piece, was drawn from a recent post on Amar’s World, where Amar took time out from his vacation to visit Noah, a deaf boy who would transferring to Amar’s school in the coming year. For more details about Noah, visit Amar’s World by following the link on the sidebar and read the post “Noah - The Grand Teacher” posted August 5, 2010. When Amar met Noah for the first time, it was obvious he had an image of Noah being disabled; Amar found it hard to imagine how someone could get along in life without hearing (see “Such an Interesting Day!” posted June 14, 2010 on Amar’s World) and embarrassed himself in his first attempts at communicating with Noah. As he got more comfortable however, Amar began to learn sign language to better communicate and, when they met the second time, Amar came to the realization “that Noah was NOT disabled - he was just deaf.” So his answer to my third example would have changed from a “yes” to a “no”.
I have already claimed that the definition of disability can be very important. In the strictest, narrowest sense, we can take a literal definition of the word, namely the inability to do something. Noah is not ABLE to hear therefore in this very specific way, he is disabled. However, when we normally use the term “disabled” it is used in a broader sense. We see it, as Amar did, to be an inability to function in life. Noah has no such problem. Going further, as long as my ADD is under control, I am not disabled either. If we look closely at people we may think are disabled, I am willing to bet we would find most of them have found ways to function quite well, by using various means to compensate for the obstacles they face. If we apply the broad definition now, very few people are actually disabled. We could probably still correctly define my relative’s daughter as disabled, as well as others who are very severely handicapped, but most people are able to find ways to overcome one or two “disabilities”. This is why the current push to ensure that workplaces make accommodations rather than not hire someone with a “disability” is so important. With just a small bit of effort and understanding, everyone can have the opportunity to exercise their full potential.
With this new realization, however, comes a new problem. If we now decide that it is not correct to use the term “disabled” to describe these people, what words can we use? While we do want to avoid emphasizing someone’s differences, these things usually do need to be addressed in some way and we shouldn’t have to be scared away from talking about these “disabilities”. This is what is so problematic about always trying to be “politically correct” - at some point the verbal contortions become so dramatic there is no longer anything “correct”. Over the years, political correctness has come up with terms such as “differently abled”, “mentally/physically challenged”, or - the absolute worst - “special”. These terms sacrifice a great deal in the way of accuracy and have the added negative of sounding very condescending. Many “disabled” people find these terms to be even more offensive than the original. So, what to do?
First, the very idea of grouping people as “disabled” is probably something we should avoid if possible. Instead we should try to consider every one we meet as an individual human being. I know that this is far easier said than done, but it couldn’t hurt to try. Second, when we refer to the actual “disability”, an alternate term that might be a little more accurate could be to refer to it as an “obstacle”. In today’s world, “disabilities” do not really disable a person, but they are an obstacle. It is there and can impede progress if not addressed. However there is usually a way to get over or around a physical or mental obstacle, much like an obstacle that blocks a road. Sometimes the obstacle can even be removed, but it many instances this is not possible. But even though the obstacle may not disappear, no matter how much you may want it to, it still does not have to stop you in your tracks forever. The only disadvantage to this wording is that changing around words and terminology can confuse matters. That is why I have frequently used the terms “disabled” or “disabilities” while putting them in quotation marks. This was to indicate that these are the terms we would previously have used but I feel are not entirely appropriate.
In the end, I think that if we put less emphasis on a person’s personal obstacles and more emphasis on their character and abilities, it will not matter as much what words we use to describe these obstacles, because it will be understood that making reference to obstacles does not denigrate the person nor does it imply that they are less able to function than anyone else.