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Am I Disabled?


Am I disabled?

First off, I would like to recognize that it is a privilege to even ask this question. I am grateful every day for what I have, health and otherwise. But for me, this is a question I have been asked several times in the last few months; I am assuming there is at least one other person with this kind of experience and I would really like to know your view. Maybe those of you with a confirmed disability have opinions, or maybe those of you who are functioning well have some thoughts.

I was filling out applications for graduate school and was surprised by this question:

Are you disabled?

  • Yes
  • No

No box for an explanation, no context for its relevance. Just a yes/no question. It is in with other demographic information such as race, so I assume it is related to diversity.

They provided the definition of disability I have seen several times: “The ADA defines a person with a disability as a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity.”

I understand this is a legal definition rather than a medical one. I have several health conditions, only one of which is “proven,” impinges on my life, and is strictly chronic. Everything else goes in waves or is undiagnosed or both. And the one diagnosis I do have is “idiopathic,” which is doctor-speak for “we don’t know why you have it or how long it’s staying around.” I have a cornucopia of mental and physical symptoms that qualify under this definition. Between sleep problems, mental fog, and chronic pain, I am limited more than the average Joe (or Jill in this case).

That being said, I am still able to accomplish any action; I just may have to majorly adapt. For example, I can do a several mile hike. But I have to do nothing the day before, plan nothing for the day after, and sit on a heat pack for next three days in order to walk like a tin man.

However, the ADA definition goes on, which not often talked about: “This includes people who have a record of such an impairment, even if they do not currently have a disability.” I have no record of impairment outside of a diagnosis of a condition currently being treated.

Even more intriguing is this: “It also includes individuals who do not have a disability but are regarded as having a disability. ” This struck me. First of all, regarded by who as having a disability? Myself? My family? A stranger forming their first impression? How would I know if I am regarded as having a disability? On a bad day, people might assume this. But most of the time, I hide it very well. When I tell most people about my health problems, I get the “you don’t look sick” or “I would never have guessed” kind of response. Am I not disabled because I do not appear to be?

Am I disabled? If I click yes, am I taking away from people who are truly disabled? Am I taking advantage? If I click no, am I presenting a more perfect version of myself than I am? Am I lying about my abilities and what they can expect from me? What is the advantage of revealing this? I have the power to reveal or not reveal this information. Am I taking away opportunities or getting what I deserve?

I ultimately don’t see much use in labels, other than to give legitimacy to others. While I would never use the word “disabled” to describe myself, I fit the definition. Is the definition wrong? I think instances like this give us a chance to reflect on how we see ourselves. But it also makes us wonder whether we are the best judge of ourselves.

What is your take? Am I disabled?

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Getty image by Alexandr Bognat.