What It Means To Me To Be “Differently-Abled”

An Asian man in a wheelchair demonstrates at a display to his female colleague. They are both wearing a black suit quite a white shirt,

They lifted the stencil up and marked one very damning message outside my home. That was me, condemned.

For a long time, I and many people with support needs have found the word “disabled” rather offensive. The prefix “dis” means to be apart from something in a bad way. For example, “discontinued” usually means a product was faulty or not popular enough to continue making it, so it’s been discontinued. “Disadvantaged” means that someone or some people do not have the same advantages as their peers, so they are not in the same socioeconomic position as them. “Disallowed” means that something that somebody did was wrong, and though it is therefore disallowed, and so on. For some of us then, “differently-abled can feel more empowering.

When someone is disabled, it usually means that they can’t do something, and that impacts them in a negative way. They’re broken, they unable, that are not as good as someone else.

Isn’t that a very negative and cruel thing to say?

I want you to think of someone that you know, and what ability do they have that you admire but don’t have in yourself? Why don’t you have it? Could you achieve it?

If not, then isn’t that to be considered a disability?

Who sets the definition for what is and is not required in life? Don’t we all have a disability with something, somehow, in some way?

When I was young, I was diagnosed with arrested non-shunted borderline hydrocephalus, mild spina bifida and lordosis, mild cerebral ataxia and a low-tone hearing loss. Within a few years of my diagnosis and not too soon before I was diagnosed with chronic pain, white markings appeared on the road outside our driveway. I peered out of the window at the top of the stairs as two men sponged white paint over stencils. They lifted the stencil up and marked one very damning message outside my home: DISABLED.

That was me, condemned.

The problem with being “disabled” is that it immediately labels the individual as not enough. Not good enough, not smart enough, not fit and able-bodied enough. But many disabled people are enough, it’s just that sometimes they just need some support from someone or something in order to be able to manage it.

How many able-bodied people need a little extra help and support sometimes? Admit it, how often have you asked someone for a spell-check or asked for some assistance in some way? Maybe even help from a disabled person themselves? I’ll wait, I bet there’s been quite a few!

As an excellent example, let us look at Stephen Hawking. Stephen Hawing lived with Lou Gehrig’s disease and depended on a motorised wheelchair and his famed eye gaze device just to be able to get around and communicate with the world, yet he was nothing short of an exemplary genius. He had thoughts and insights on the world that could inspire generations and his sense of humour was second to none.

How many people could claim they have a mind like Stephen’s? Very few, if any.

A funny story for you, I could never do gymnastics at school. Along with my lordosis, I also developed hypermobility which doctor’s told my parents was double-jointedness, and to enrol me in a gymnastics class as soon as possible. I later attended a sports centre linked with world-famous ice skater Robin Cousins, where I got promptly removed for being the slowest in my class. It turns out, gymnastics had never really been my forté, after all!

But having failed in one area, doesn’t mean I go on to fail in all areas.

You see, I’m not disabled, I’m differently-abled.

So what if I can’t do handstands, cartwheels and forward rolls? I’ve been noticed and commended for my quick wit and positive outlook on life.

So what if I was the slowest in my class on the track? I’ve won awards for my leadership skills in canoeing.

Maybe I can’t do some things without experiencing chronic pain, but I can make my family and peers feel understood and supported, and usually, in return, they are more than willing to help me.

I may not have succeeded in gym class, but I’ve far exceeded some of my able-bodied peers in life and living. I may need jar openers and grab rails, but I dress well and I’m known for my cooking capabilities.

We need to do away with the term “disabled” and embrace words like “support” for better equality. Grab rails and disability aids need to stop being advertised as tools for disabled people and be advertised more inclusively as support aids. Everyone needs a little support in some way sometimes, and that’s perfectly okay.

Rather than seeing a disability as a prevention, let’s revise the way we say these things. Instead of seeing them as an obstacle to normal living, let’s see them as a challenge to be overcome.

What about if we called them “difficulties” instead, doesn’t that sound better? After all, we talk about difficulties far more readily. Justification for the use of a spellchecker in able-bodied people is a ‘difficult’ word, so wouldn’t ‘difficulty’ be a more accomodating word for everyone?

Instead of a “disability”, we could think about these things as “difficulties”. Instead of labelling people by the conditions they have, we could identify the support they need by the difficulties they face. In 2020, where it is politically incorrect to assume gender and criminal to make personal remarks about a person’s race, isn’t it about time we did better to be more accommodating towards disabled people, too? Instead of regarding people as disabled, we should focus on what they have to offer, the difficulties that they face and how we’re going to help them overcome them. Instead of writing thoughtful and capable people off, we should be finding ways to overcome and make disabled people, enabled people instead.

What do you think? I’d welcome your thoughts in the comments.

Until next time.

Stay safe & have fun,

Helen xx

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