Thursday, January 05, 2006

On Being Disabled

Copyright © 2005 by Joel Marks
Originally published as “Society decides which disabilities are disabling” in the New Haven Register on June 2, 1995, page A16

I am a person with a disability ... in fact, many disabilities.

When I need something from a high shelf, I have to find something to stand on. I'm just not tall enough to reach it without assistance.

When I want to read the small print, I have to put on my glasses. Without them I am helpless, unless someone else is nearby, in which case I can ask them to read it to me. And even with my glasses on, for the life of me I could not see what an eagle sees ... or even what a bee sees.

I have no way to keep myself warm outside at night or on a winter's day unless I wear clothes. I am a pretty hairy guy, actually, but not nearly hairy enough to deal with all kinds of weather.

If I want to bring food home from the supermarket, I use a car. How else would I ever be able to carry it back? I'm just not big or strong enough, unless I spent the whole day walking between here and there with one bag at a time.

I wouldn't even think of trying to walk on water; I'm just not suited for it. And sometimes the distance I must travel is too far even to swim, so I have to wait for a boat to take me across.
And what would I do without a telephone to enable me to hear what somebody across town is saying? My hearing is just too weak to pick up their voice otherwise.

My intellect is incredibly weak, too. Oh, I can do simple arithmetic operations in my head, but when it comes to the square root of 578 ... I rely on a calculator!

I could go on and on. If truth be told, there are far more things I cannot do than I can do. This is not just a case of the glass being half-empty; it's pretty much drained dry.

And yet, to all appearances, I am a "normal" person. I disguise or compensate for many of my disabilities. As my examples show, I do count on lots of help from various devices and other people. But, lucky for me, these happen to be the very sorts of assistance that most members of my community depend on as well. So my disabilities don't even seem to be disabilities because nobody expects me to be able to do the things that I cannot do.

Is what we usually call a disability, then, really only a particular type of disability? If most human beings -- or even just most of the people in a given community -- have a disability in common, they tend not to see it for what it is. But if someone in the community has a relatively rare disability, then we think of that as a genuine disability.

In other words, what we typically recognize as a disability is a kind of abnormality -- a deviation from the norm, where the "norm" is simply what is usually the case. Not just any abnormality is a disability, for example, having an unusual eye color, but only one which impedes a vital function, such as knowing when it is safe to cross a traffic intersection.

But even this kind of disability is not anything objective, for society chooses which disabilities to accommodate and hence which are truly disabling. Sometimes by extremely simple and inexpensive means, vast realms of "disability" can be eliminated. For example, all of us have the disability to know which is the men's room and which is the women's room ... or even which is a bathroom at all ... if we are presented with nothing but a blank door. All of us depend on a sign outside that door.

A person who is blind requires a sign too, in raised lettering or Braille. Without this simple accommodation, the person may be helpless ... and, indeed, appear to others to be suffering from a disability. But that person is in no different a fix from anybody else, absent the required information in a form she can detect. Even a sighted person would be helpless without a magnifying glass if the lettering were too small ... or if it spelled a word in a language he did not know.

People do not just have disabilities; society decides who shall be disabled.

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Ideas for this essay emerged from a symposium on "People with Disabilities in the Workplace," moderated by Joel Marks at the University of New Haven on April 26, 1995, as well as from an interview with Amanda Massaro, a student at the university, on “Student Scene,” a radio program hosted by Joel Marks on WNHU-West Haven, Connecticut, 88.7 FM, on May 18, 1995.

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