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Why I Don't Let the 'Disability' Label Define Me

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As a person born with spina bifida, I could have been labeled as a disabled kid. I don’t actually remember anyone ever saying the word “disabled” when referring to me, though. I have been thinking about that a lot lately and I truly can’t think of a time when someone called me “disabled” until later in life.

Of course, I knew I was in some way different because I clearly couldn’t walk. I never believed I couldn’t do anything I wanted to, though, because no one ever told me I couldn’t. I would play outside like any other kid — I just didn’t use my legs to get from point A to point B. I used a wheelchair or handcycle and sometimes just crawled.  I even had a dog that would let me ride him. I would push myself through the woods around my childhood home. Usually, I would go until I got stuck and had to get out of my wheelchair and drag it out of some sticky situation. That didn’t stop me from continuing, just changed the path I chose to take.

I have chosen to take a lot of different paths in life, and not once have I ever wondered if it was possible. I wondered how I might make it happen, but I always knew there would be a way to get there. I have had the opportunity to fly airplanes, skydive, paraglide, downhill and cross-country ski, play wheelchair basketball and most recently climb big walls in Yosemite.
I wonder if someone had said to me “you are disabled and you won’t be able to do many things,” if that would have changed my perception of my abilities.

I started thinking about this idea of labeling in earnest about two years ago when I was in Yosemite National Park attempting to climb my first big wall. I was sitting in the cafeteria and saw a bird outside the window. It seemed like fate that the bird had landed right next to the window. This bird, you see, only had one leg. I instantly thought to myself no one has ever told that bird it is disabled. As I watched the bird, I noticed it was doing everything else the other birds were doing, but on one leg. It still had the ability to get around by hopping. It was able to eat and make bird calls and definitely could fly — all the things a bird does in a normal day.

And there is that word normal. Does anyone actually know what that means? Could it be that this bird was living its normal life and I am living mine? This bird didn’t know it was disabled — it just kept living its life and doing things the way it knew how.

After that day, I kept thinking about that bird. I wondered, if someone got injured and was now going to live a different normal, would it be better if the doctor in the rehab said to them “What is your favorite thing in the world to do?” After they answered, the doctor could say “Let’s figure out how to do that.” This may give the newly injured person a goal to strive for instead of assigning them a label society often associates with helplessness, being institutionalized, and being unable to do things.

Being a disabled athlete, I have many friends who live differently but still are able to do everything they want to in life.  But why do I have to use the label “disabled athlete?” Why can’t I just be considered an athlete? I realize athlete is also a label, but do you get a different picture in your mind when you think about an athlete as opposed to a disabled athlete? I bet you do.

When we use labels it can automatically bring to mind certain prejudicial images of how someone should act, look, or many other attributes. When we call someone “disabled” or any other label it may also bring these things to their mind and in some way, they may start living as if they are that label. They may think that label defines who they are.

I don’t believe anyone can be completely defined. We are ever evolving. Five years ago I had no thought of being a rock climber, then I decided I wanted to try it. Now, one of the many labels you could use to describe me is rock climber — but that is not who I am. I am Enock, a person who has many interests, talents, likes, dislikes, personality traits, and a plethora of other labels that could be given. I will never just be one thing. Yes I have a disability and you could call me disabled, but that label doesn’t bring with it the same connotations you may have in your mind when you use it to describe me.

I wonder, if next time you see a person who is different in some way, what if you just saw them as a person? What if you forget the labels and just say “Hi, how are you?” and let your perceptions form from there. Would we all realize we aren’t that much different, but just living differently?

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Originally published: April 30, 2017
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