“I’ve come to believe that the word ‘disabled’ is a misnomer. ‘Disabled’ implies that you are broken beyond use. No longer functional. I’m quite abled. I may no longer participate in field operations, but I’m a better teacher now… I refuse to be defined by which functions my body can or cannot perform well. Quite frankly, I’m more that the sum of my physical parts.”
— Magic Breaks by Ilona Andrews
A shock to the system
The Kate Daniels series by Ilona Andrews is light reading. Some romance, a lot of action and all fantasy makes it good weekend reading. So I was startled to see something so profound.
Those few sentences have made me question how I think (and write) about disability. I sometimes use the term “able-bodied” as a synonym for someone who’s healthy. And after reading that quote, I find the implications pretty concerning.
Because I am able-bodied. I can breathe on my own; I can walk. I can, with proper planning, go out for a night on the town. I can even exercise (in moderation). Granted, I’ll never be able to run a marathon, but I can dash short distances. (I mean, I don’t like dashing, but I can do it.)
Yes we can
This isn’t some cheery diatribe about having a more chipper attitude and ignoring the fact that I can’t do certain things. Nor is it a post about being thankful for what you still have. Hopefully, you all know by now that people with disabilities don’t have to cheerful or grateful. We’re allowed to be disgruntled (or even bitter) about our limitations. To try and say otherwise is going straight into inspiration porn territory.
But it’s also important that we don’t buy into the idea of disabled people being “less than.” Part of that requires eschewing words that imply that our bodies are useless.
Easier said than done, of course. And it can be especially tough for people who began their lives healthy. It’s easy for us to get stuck on everything we’ve lost — to the point that people like me think nothing of calling a healthy person “able-bodied.” As though our bodies weren’t able to do anything themselves.
But that’s simply not the case.
Sure, most people in wheelchairs can’t walk, but they’re able to move themselves through the world nonetheless. With more difficulty, perhaps, and being more susceptible to physical obstacles, yes. But they are capable of propelling themselves around.
Yes, people with chronic fatigue can’t keep up with many healthy people. But we’re able to perform most activities and tasks — just so long as we can take them in moderation.
And it’s true that fibromyalgia imposes a lot of limitations. Heck, some days it’s all Tim can do to be present and take care of his basic needs. But he is able to do something most days. He runs some of our errands and does some chores around the house. And he’s still taking Pandora to the dog park almost every day.
His body is capable of things, so it’s wrong to use a word that implies that his body doesn’t work at all. To do so encourages the already-hovering idea that people with disabilities aren’t whole, just because some of our abilities are limited. It defines us by only one aspect of our lives — only one aspect of our bodies — and makes us ripe for people’s pity and prejudice.
Am I disabled enough?
Another problem with the word: Having to say “I’m disabled” can lead to self-doubt. If you don’t have an obvious disability, if your body works at least partially, you might question whether you should really call yourself disabled.
I spent years saying that I was “kind of disabled but not really” because a) I’m great at denial and b) I didn’t match the classic picture of a disabled person. My body still (sorta) worked. So I couldn’t be disabled, right? Because didn’t disabled mean really, really broken?*
Of course, I’d have sworn up and down that this wasn’t what I meant. That I knew disabled people were still able to do many things. I’d have toed the political-correctness line all the way, talking about how people with disabilities can still lead full lives** and weren’t lesser than anyone. And that they were still capable of plenty.
But my brain flooded with panic and denial every time I tried to say that I was disabled. Because that would be admitting to be really, severely sick, right? Because you couldn’t be just a little disabled, could you? It was clearly all or nothing, and if I accepted “all” then I was accepting a definition of being practically non-functional.
So if I admitted to being disabled, I was, in my mind, admitting that I was wholly unable — and, therefore, unable to be whole. No, I simply wasn’t sick enough for that, so I couldn’t be truly disabled. And what would happen if a “real” disabled person came along? I’d be called out as a fake!
Thus, the connotations of “disabled” kept me from accepting the truth for years.
Are you disabled enough?
Hopefully, most people with disabilities don’t fall for that kind of thinking. But even if they escape that, they’re not free of the implications of “disabled.” There’s still the matter of other people’s perceptions and their judgment about what constitutes “real” disability.
Tanja from Our Next Life watched her father get chased down and lectured because he could walk and still had the audacity to park in the accessible parking space. People told him that if he wasn’t in a wheelchair then he wasn’t really disabled.
And heaven forbid you’re severely overweight and have a mobility issue. People tend to assume that the mobility issue was caused by the weight (instead of potentially vice versa), and since it’s seemingly self-inflicted, a lot of people won’t mentally classify it as a “real” disability.
In short, being disabled in this society brings with it the obligation to meet a certain threshold of “sick.” If you fail to meet other people’s mental bar for disability then you’re malingering — or even faking.
Sure, you can blow it off as the BS it is; but you’ll still have to endure it. You’ll still have people stopping you, haranguing you, making you justify yourself, prying into private medical issues. All because you look too able to be disabled.
So it’s clear that “disabled” is a loaded term. But if I’m to start avoiding the word, what exactly does that leave me?
I still cringe at the term “differently abled.” Perhaps it is the most mentally healthy term to describe people with disabilities. But the term just seems too PC, even for me. Too chipper and inspiration porn-y: “Don’t be sad — you’re just differently abled! Celebrate what you still have, and ignore everything negative!”
Besides, “differently” implies that we have skills healthy folks don’t. We’re just trying to emphasize that we’ve still got plenty of abilities left.
“Still abled” seems the most appropriate. Alas, the term sounds clunky (and like it’s trying a little too hard to convince itself).
I guess I’ll have to default to “I have a disability” and to refer to the community at large as “people with disabilities.” That term implies that part of life is impeded by a condition, not defined by it.
Do you think the term “disabled” is too loaded a word to use?
*Not a term I’d ever have used for any other person with a disability, mind you. But for some reason “disabled” meant something different when applied to me.
**”Can still lead full lives” being extremely questionable wording in and of itself, but I was young, oblivious and in denial.