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What Does 'Disability' Really Mean?

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Today is Disability Awareness Day. The fact that I have autism, OCD, major depression, and anxiety compels me to say something about having a disability. Still, I have no idea how to talk about having a disability without feeling like I’m stacking the deck against myself.

How do you talk about having a disability when the very term “disability” implies something that makes you lesser? The prefix dis- means “lack of,” or “not.” And it’s not like there’s some other word that avoids it. I believe “differently-abled” is condescending, and “special needs” falls into the same trap of “disability” by implying something alien, as though a disabled person does not have the same basic needs: food, water, shelter, and compassion.

I feel as though the language we use to talk about disability is rigged against us. It unavoidably dehumanizes us, because we cannot talk about “disabled” without reference to the “abled,” the “normal.” And since disability is typically implied to be permanent, the language informs me that I am permanently separated from what is normal. That I can never be like everybody else.

But then none of us can be like everybody else. We’re all ensconced in our individual skulls, our unique minds and unique perspectives. And just as much as I am disabled from being like everybody else, so is everybody else disabled from being like me. I do not know what it’s like to not have autism. But then, others do not know what it is like to have my autism. I do not know what it’s like to be able to interact naturally and un-self-consciously, but others do not know what it’s like to experience music the way I do, to hear the sounds of instruments dividing and subdividing into unique universes of soundlets, all separate yet simultaneously coalescing together into a larger whole, and then seeing those sounds turn to images in one’s mind. Those without depression may not know the depths of pain other people can feel.

None of this is to say that any disability is inherently “good.” I don’t want to have depression, and I take active steps to work out of it. Rather, what we call “disabilities” are what we choose to make of them. And it doesn’t matter if we choose to accept our disabilities and celebrate them, or rebel and agitate against them: both choices are valid. Because at a fundamental level, what makes something a disability is dependent on nobody else but the person who has it. At the core of me, at the basic essence of who I am, there is no “abled” or “disabled.” There is only me. The only person I have ever been at this moment. And at this moment, I do not have autism, or OCD, or depression or anxiety. I have only me, my life, and my experiences. Before I relate to anything else in the world, I relate to that. And I decide what it means.

None of this is to say that we should do away with “disability” and terms like it in favor of some sweeping “we’re all the same” generalizations. Language matters, and however imprecise and problematic such a term as “disability” may be, it’s nonetheless useful for identifying issues and conflicts that can be resolved through political action or science or medicine. But it would do us well to realize that the language we use to talk about disability, like all language, is ephemeral. What it’s describing does not exist. It’s a simplification – and thus a distortion – we use to serve our own ends, or the ends of others.

Instead, I believe we need to think about the ways in which we entrap ourselves within the whims of a society that purports to judge our bodies and our lives without our consent. The ways we have confused society’s opinions for our own internal monologues. And to be cognizant that when we use terms like “disability,” we are using a term that may be useful, but does not actually exist — except insofar as we and society allow it to.

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Originally published: December 7, 2016
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