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Disability Identification

  • Posted on January 9, 2015 at 10:00 AM

I’m reading Nothing About Us Without Us by James I. Charlton. One of the topics he covers is disability identification. As the argument is presented, one of the biggest challenges of the Disability Rights Movement (DRM) is getting people to both identify with their disability and their peers with disabilities and to feel empowered; because, dominant cultures assert that disability is weakness and inferiority.

As the mother of three children with disabilities, it was easy for me to reject the idea that my children were weak and inferior. I value my children as they are for who they are. It was easy to recognize that, yes, they have disabilities, but no, their disabilities don’t mean what the dominant culture says they mean. This is especially easy when confronted with the dominant culture’s willingness to see children like mine as disposable, where parents who murder their kids are the real victims. That makes it really, really easy for me to reject the dominant culture wholeheartedly, because I just can’t find it in my heart to sympathize with parents who kill their own kids, let alone empathize with them.

As a woman with a newly diagnosed disability, it’s a bit harder for me to reject the idea that I am weak and inferior while still acknowledging my disability. Really, the only thing I have going for me in that regard is that I was already primed to reject the dominant culture. When you’ve lost abilities that you once had, it’s hard not to see yourself as “less than” you were. I don’t have the same physical capacity I once had, but since I was never a very “physical” person, I can handle that. But I don’t have the same mental capacity I once had, either, and that’s much harder for me to cope with, because I was and am a very “mental” person.

I think a lot. I think when I work. I think when I “play.” I think instead of getting bored. I am a nearly endless source of my own “amusement.” I hate the fact that I lose track of my own thoughts. I hate the fact that I can’t remember things as readily as I used to. And I hate the fact that fatigue and cloudiness interferes with the way I want to live my life.

I can deal with the pain of fibromyalgia a lot easier than I can deal with the mental impact. There is part of me that sees that impact as making me less than I was. For that part of me, acknowledging my disability is acknowledging that I am less than I was. But there’s another part of me that knows that this struggle misses the point.

When people without disabilities regard people with disabilities as being “less than,” they’re not talking about being less able, they’re talking about being less human. The dominant culture treats people with disabilities as if they were less human, less valuable, less worthy of life, of rights, of support.

I am less able than I was, but I am no less human, no less valuable to my family or my clients, and no less worthy of my life, my rights, and the support of my fellow human beings.

This is simply true.

I could make it a matter of arrogance and point out that I was more able before my disability and that I am still more able than most of humanity with regards to the things that I value. I am still more able to handle three children with autism while respecting them and nurturing them into adulthood. I am still more able to write a damned fine piece, whether it’s a blog post or a web page or a book. I am still more able to create a loving, sustainable marriage with a partner with bi-polar disorder. I am still more able than anyone else to live my life.

That’s true, too; but, it’s not the point.

The point is that people with disabilities should feel free to identify as having a disability without shame and without being made to feel less human. The point is that people with disabilities should not be ashamed to associate and affiliate with other people with disabilities, or even with other people without disabilities. Humanity isn’t measured by degrees of ability. Humanity is an either/or option. Men are human. So are women. But gorillas aren’t. Dogs aren’t. And the fact that I can’t remember the right word(s) to describe the distinction doesn’t really matter either.

We are all human beings, regardless of our abilities and our disabilities, and we all matter.



(This is not to be construed to mean that we should be free to go around killing gorillas and dogs for fun, because they don’t matter. Animals matter, too. So do plants, for that matter. It’s just that, in my opinion, people matter more.)

(Now, I’m going to go ask my husband what the word(s) I can’t remember are, because it’s bugging me that I can’t remember. Apparently the words I couldn’t remember are binary distinction, but Mark doesn’t think it works, because there is more than one type of animal, so it’s not binary. But either/or and yes/no are binary, and that was the point I was making, so I’m going to stick with the thought that refused to be pinned down.)