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Why the Dictionary Definition of Disability Doesn't Define Us

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Many people, I would argue most people, hear that term and think of a person who can’t accomplish something due to a condition that is outside of their control. The connotation, the meaning associated with the word disability is negative.

I used to think this way. I would hear it and think can’t. If you have a disability, then you can’t do this or you can’t do that. Disability means having to adjust your way of life and accept that certain things are out of your reach.

To some extent, I think this is true. Even today. However, I would phrase it completely differently. I do think having a disability, no matter what that may mean for you, does mean you have to adjust your way of life. However, I do not think this also means you can’t do things.

The dictionary definition of disability is “an impairment that may be cognitive, developmental, intellectual, mental, physical, sensory, or some combination of these. It substantially affects a person’s life activities and may be present from birth or occur during a person’s lifetime.” But people live with disabilities. They don’t live as disabilities. I feel as though there is a constant battle between people who have and struggle with disabilities, and people who try to define what a disability is for someone else. They’re in battle for recognition, not only for what makes them different but also for what makes them the same.

I live with disabilities. I didn’t want to recognize that for a long time because I knew other people might then associate me with that negative connotation of not being able to achieve through the same means or to the same extent as people without disabilities. It wasn’t until I finally accepted that I live and accomplish the same things without calling it a disability, that I shouldn’t be afraid of the term. My life is a constant balancing act between everything I have going on in my life. But isn’t it that way for everyone?

I agree there are certain aspects of having disabilities that separate my experience from that of other people. Everyone has a different experience and different perspective on aspects of life. Some experiences include more struggle than others, but in my opinion all that really changes is your overall perspective on what you can and can’t handle. We are shaped by our experiences, but that doesn’t make one person any more or less. The idea of measuring accomplishments is a very American thing, I think. Our culture is well known for taking subjective ideas such as accomplishments and justice and attempting to objectively measure it for a capitalistic purpose.

That to me is utter bullshit.

You can’t objectively measure accomplishments. You can measure economic or monetary success, but that is a completely different category than an accomplishment. An accomplishment to me is defined by an action that was difficult for you to complete, but you battled to overcome it. That can be literally anything. It can be getting out of bed in the morning when your body is in immense pain, either emotional or physical, or it can be running a marathon. The scale of the accomplishments is different, but they are both accomplishments with merit of their own.

To me it was important to write this post, to help those who struggle with their disabilities to understand that disability doesn’t have to mean can’t. It can mean simply shifting your perspective to match your experience. I also wanted to write this post for those who don’t know what it’s like to struggle with a condition that’s outside of the norm, the ones who stigmatize those with disabilities (consciously or unconsciously), so I can help them understand that the dictionary definition of disability isn’t what defines us.

If you have a disability or know someone who does, feel free to comment on this post with your own experiences, either with an accomplishment or a time you felt that you were stigmatized because of your differences.

Getty image by Vvoe Vale.

This story originally appeared on Living as a Sick College Student.

Originally published: March 26, 2018
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