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What I Feel This New York Times Article Gets Wrong About Disability

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Recently, I have repeatedly encountered an article published by the New York Times called “Who is Able-Bodied, Anyway?” In one of my courses, a professor praised this article’s analysis of Medicaid. I knew the article well – having had it sent to me several times and having read it again each time. While I agree with the overall point being made in this article, it falls short in recognizing the impact it holds for the disability community.

This New York Times article argues that we need to think more critically about who receives Medicaid. It discusses how the “physical distinction always implies a moral one” and how the U.S. often believes that disabled people should be on Medicaid and the able-bodied should work. The able-bodied do not fall into the category of the “deserving poor.” This article argues that there are situations outside of physical or mental ability that impact a person’s ability to make a living wage or gain medical coverage, and this context should be considered in policy making too.

I agree wholeheartedly with this final idea. The full situation in which a person lives impacts their ability to access healthcare; therefore, policies should expand to consider whole life experience. However, this point could have been made without asking the question “who is actually able-bodied?” The reality is that disability is complex and multi-faceted, but disability is also what it is – disability.

I feel that to claim an able-bodied person with a rough life situation is not able-bodied is a blatant erasure of the experiences of disabled people, specifically because our minds and bodies cannot fit the mold society has deemed “normal.” We can certainly acknowledge that there are people who should have assistance – who are deserving, because all humans deserve adequate healthcare – without erasing disability identity and experience. We can also acknowledge that some circumstances, especially poverty, can be disabling over the long-term, but it’s key that we acknowledge not every poor person is disabled. There critical intersections are less evident if we fail to see the nuances. For example, ~23 percent of disabled people in the U.S. are poor, and we in public health should be looking carefully at how the health outcomes of the disabled poor vary from the non-disabled poor. This will allow us to develop effective interventions for each distinct group.

I agree that the word “able-bodied” should not be used in our discussions as the sole deciding factor for who receives Medicaid. This fails to acknowledge the many disabled people who do have fulfilling jobs they perform incredibly well (I am referring, of course, to those who are paid fairly and not 22 cents per hour) and the many able-bodied people that have other systemic or situational factors impacting their financial prospects. But, I also believe we can be more creative in analyzing our long history of assumptions about the “undeserving poor” without using ableist concepts.

Originally published: March 21, 2018
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