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The Slow Journey Towards Redefining the Word 'Disability'

“Let there be a law that no deformed child shall live.” — Aristotle, 330 B.C.

In today’s society, this statement seems ludicrous. In a time where there is a push for further acceptance of all people, and the disability rights movement is making great strides, this quote seems far removed from modern society. And yet, is it that far off? We have just recently moved away from forced sterilizations and institutionalizations, the rights of those with disabilities lag behind that of other minorities. While disabled people are currently the largest minority in the world, they are still looked down upon — whether that be looks of pity or of disgust — and face discrimination from employers, peers and society as a whole due to their identity.

Even before Aristotle’s bold statement, the Romans and other early societies had regarded disability as a negative force. For the Romans, it was considered a great misfortune to birth a disabled child, and a large portion of disabled children were abandoned and left to die. Similarly, in Athens, a baby with a disability would be killed in its first days of life as their society believed a baby was not really a child until seven days after birth; this enabled them to kill off said child with a clean conscience. It is clear that in these early civilizations, disability was widely regarded as not only a hindrance to the person affected, but an evil to society as a whole.

As these ancient empires evolved into the Western world, you might assume the treatment of disabled people would transition as well. Unfortunately, the evolution of treatment would not be seen until much later in history. Moving ahead to the mid-1900’s, the disabled population still faced not only discrimination, but death. In Nazi Germany, Hitler targeted not only the Jews, but also more marginalized populations — the disabled. During Hitler’s reign alone, 200,000 disabled people were killed off on the basis of their mental or physical impairment. Hitler himself called his reign the “best time for the elimination of the incurably ill.”

While the treatment seen in the United States during this time was a bit different, one fact remained true: Disabled people were regarded as useless to society. Individuals were not systematically murdered in the U.S. like they were in Germany, but many were institutionalized, sterilized, or both. The driving thought process here was simple: Disabled people’s impairment would impair society’s success. A majority of people believed this population would take resources, but never contribute to society — aside from creating more disabled children to deplete resources, thus creating a positive feedback loop. Therefore, while slightly improved, no real progress was seen between Aristotle and World War II: a 2,220 year time period.

Finally, in the 1960s, the disabled population in the United States commenced their own civil rights movement, empowered by the recent resistance of women and African Americans. Over the following decades, advocates would gain attention in the media, the government would form groups to address this large population, and institutionalizations and sterilizations would be greatly reduced. Disabled people — at least in the Western world — began to see an increase in their rights and place in society. Some took to the workplace, some began to have children, and some just enjoyed no longer facing the risk of being institutionalized. Real progress had been made for the population, and this group should have been optimistic, right? Not so fast.

Disability was and is still viewed as an extremely negative force. It is widely viewed as a factor in one’s life that should either be pitied or hated. As one scrolls through their Facebook feeds, they see headlines like, “Disabled girl graduates!” or “Stephen Hawking finally free from his disability.” In both of these examples, it is clear that a disability is not seen as desirable. I would classify the first headline as inspiration porn: a common occurrence wherein the media glorifies a simple accomplishment simply on the basis of disability, evoking a sense of pity. In contrast, the recent Stephen Hawking headlines have highlighted that he is finally “free” from his wheelchair and disability. This makes his disability seem like a restricting, detrimental force in Hawking’s life where he often referred to it as a positive. As these negative portrayals of disability flood the media, positive aspects of being disabled are left unexplored.

When I became disabled my freshman year, I felt the negative connotation of that word to its fullest degree. Personally, I viewed my disability as a leech; it would take and take from me until nothing was left but a shell of who I once was. Other people viewed my disability as something to pity. I’d be told, “I’m so sorry you have that.” Even if those exact words were not said to me, the pity in people’s eyes when they looked at me was clear. They viewed my disability as a leech — just like I did. Then I started writing.

I published my first article in the summer of 2016, and I was hooked. One article soon became 10, which has now become 80. Along with these articles came speaking, videos, artwork, and whatever else I could do to help others and turn my disability into a motivator, rather than a leech.

In the following years, I met countless empowering people. From fellow advocates to current bosses, I found an incredible community of disabled people. One community I now moderate, Diversability, has over 3,000 members that are continually positive and empowering. I never see Facebook posts reading “Oh, woe is me.” Instead, I read posts that say, “Today I conquered my fears.” For this group of people, disability is a positive force.

Along the way, I met disabled adventurer Tony Giles. Deaf and blind since birth, he turned his disability into an advantage through travel. Tony has traveled to over 100 countries and often participated in the most adventurous activities he could find. When I asked him in an interview about these activities, he explained that he actually found his disability to be an advantage because you have less fear when you can’t see the bottom or hear other people yell.

Then last year came Jennifer Brea. Jennifer has chronic fatigue syndrome and created a documentary on it, “Unrest,” which went on to be nominated for an Oscar and is now on Netflix. She explained in the film that her disability gave her such an appreciation for life, she would never want to go back. She would love to be healthy, but not at the expense of her new perspective on life.

All of these people, in addition to countless others, have redefined the future of disability. Disability is not a negative force that sucks the life out of you. Disability is not an impairment to society as a whole. Disability is not cruel or pitiable. Disability is amazing. My disability provided with me the same perspective of life as Jennifer Brea. I appreciate every sunrise, laugh and smile a little more. I have learned life is precious, and one must live it.

I wish disability did not have the prefix dis- attached to it. Dis- implies lacking something, and void or lacking is inherently negative in our society. Yet where I lack ability in some areas, I make up for it in others. I may not run a five minute mile, but I can write an article to be released to thousands of people in that same five minutes. I may not be able to stand up when I give a speech, but I can still command a room with my powerful voice. I may not be able to do everything the next person can, but I am skilled and able in my own ways. Where disability has taken away some of my physical ability, it has given myself and countless others the ability to view life from a new perspective and advocate for real change.

The disabled population as a whole is one of the most forward-thinking and empowered group of people I have ever encountered. From their unique perspectives on life to their immense voices that they harness so effectively, it is clear that the disabled population is a force to be reckoned with. The only thing holding them back is society’s inherently negative connotation of the word disability.


Getty image by Michail_Petrov-96.