Defining Disabilities, Part I

What makes a disability a disability?

Disabilities can be intimidating to discuss since it is a subject that a majority of people lack knowledge about. Most people have been conditioned to think about disability in a certain way or as being in a certain circumstance. In other words, disability is seen as a black and white subject.

In reality, disability is difficult to define. The meaning of it has changed so many times throughout history. Women were once considered to be disabled in comparison to a man. Similarly, people of color were considered disabled in comparison to white people, which was backed by scientific racism. Today it is commonly considered that people are disabled by the limits of their body in a medical way.

However, the medical model isn’t an accurate measurement for disabilities. Disabilities are not defined by a person’s body but by the culture around them. Let’s use an example to demonstrate this. John is a basketball player. He is the best player on his high school team and helped to win the regional championship. Despite all of his talent, John will never be accepted to play on a professional basketball team. Why?

John is 5’5” tall. The average professional basketball player is 6’7” tall. No matter how fast John is or how high he can jump or how well he can dribble, the professional basketball world will see his height as a disability on the court.

That’s one example of how disabilities are culturally constructed. This idea is referred to as the social model of disabilities. People become disabled by barriers in society, not by the difference in their bodies. As an example, a wheelchair user isn’t disabled by the use of a wheelchair, but rather they become disabled when the only way into a building is a flight of stairs. Or another way of thinking about it, a wheelchair user becomes disabled by a culture that relies on stairs instead of ramps. Another example is a Deaf person isn’t really disabled until they put on a movie only to find there are no closed captions. Or to draw a page from my experiences in the pandemic, I’ve become more disabled because the use of face masks prevents me from being able to lipread. There are many more examples I could give on this subject. But what about things we don’t normally think of as being disabilities?

I once gave a presentation in a college class on disability studies. At the beginning of my presentation, I did a poll. “By raise of hand, who here has a visual disability?” About four or five hands went up. I then rephrased my question: “Who here uses glasses or contacts?” There were chuckles and more than half the class raised their hands.

Glasses and contacts are examples of assistive technology. Assistive technology refers to anything used by people with disabilities in order to perform functions that might otherwise be difficult or impossible. Wheelchairs, canes, glasses, medications, hearing aids, are all examples of assistive technology. But so are pencil grips, graphic organizers, voice recognition, spell checkers, fidget spinners, and shoe inserts. If you’ve ever used an elevator, ramp, or escalator—you’ve used assistive technology.

Let’s take it a step further and recall infomercials or “As-Seen-On-TV” ads with the over-reacting actors showcasing useless products, such as a banana slicer or an egg cracker or juice bottle pourer. These products are actually designed for people with disabilities. An egg cracker designed for people who have one hand. A banana slicer for those who don’t have the dexterity to use a knife safely. A juice bottle pourer for people who struggle to hold heavy objects.

Because the market for disabilities is so small, these products have to be marketed to the world at large. The reason the actors in the commercials are so overly-clumsy is that they are trying to mimic disabilities without being obvious about it. Since most people have had no idea about that fact, that means these actors are doing a good job. With that said, assistive technology is meant to help empower people with tools and independence. You’ve likely benefited from assistive technology throughout your life, regardless if you have a disability or not.

Disabilities get even more complicated when you take into account temporary disabilities. Temporary disabilities, as the name suggests, are disabilities that are temporary such as a sprained ankle, broken arm, a concussion, among other things. For the six weeks that a person has a broken leg, they will use a cast, wheelchair, crutches, ramps, and elevators rather than stairs. Then there are the six months of physical therapy after the fracture heals. During all that time they are disabled. Another example of this is a dental cavity that causes a person to chew on one side of their mouth rather than both sides.

This applies in stories as well. How many times have you read a book or watched a show where the main character gets injured, but bounces back in the next scene? A character takes an arrow through the shoulder, but in a couple of weeks it is back to normal? I think we can all agree that’s not realistic writing. So, what are the long-lasting implications of of their injury? What forms of assistive technology might they use while they recover?

By now, hopefully, you are starting to see disabilities aren’t a black and white spectrum. In a lot of ways, everyone has different disabilities in the same way that everyone has different abilities. The meaning of this: the story of disabilities is the story what it means to be human. That’s why it is important to think about disability.

13 thoughts on “Defining Disabilities, Part I

    1. Unfortunately, our society has very negative views toward disabilities. In many cases, becoming disabled is presented like it’s the worse possible outcome. Thus it feels like the end of the world. Even though I was born with my disability, I frequently had negative feelings about my own disability growing up. Some days I still do. It is hard to grow past those feelings. But at the end of the day, disabilities may change how you live, but they don’t change who you are.

      I’ll be posting “Defining Disabilities, Part 2” at the end of next week. I’ll be talking more about the disabled identity and what is the disabled community. I think it will be helpful or at least of interest to your grandson. Becoming disabled is an experience that millions of people share, even though they are not portrayed in media. It can be a very lonely and painful experience, but it is one of the most common experiences of being human. Did you know that the largest minority in American (and in the world) happens to be disabilities?

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