Most of us are not born with a disability, but we are almost guaranteed to experience being disabled sometime during our lifetimes. A disability can come in the form of a badly broken leg, as my husband recently experienced this year, or an injury related to a car accident, or in a fall, or while playing sports, to cite a few examples.
My Master’s degree is in Rehabilitation Counseling. I was a new graduate when the amendment to the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1978 (AWD) was made into law and I was thrilled and excited that greater inclusion and protections would result. That optimism was gradually borne out with the emergence of assistive technology, new models of independent/residential living, and increased societal awareness resulting in persons with disability being featured in advertising, media, movies, and TV shows.
Disability is defined by the World Health Organization as an umbrella term that includes limitations in activity, impairments and restrictions in participation. The AWD law defines disability as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.” Able-bodied people may notice people in a wheelchair, or walking with a guide dog, or running with a prosthetic leg, but they don’t conceive of them as sharing a social identity and political status. They may see the disabled as people who have had something unfortunate happen to them or perhaps whose genes were at fault. The one thing most people are clear about is that they themselves don’t want to live like “those” people do.
Yet disabled people are everywhere once you start paying attention. If you look around while you are in public places, like a shopping mall, it can be revealing: people with hearing aids, people walking with canes and crutches, those using service animals in stores and restaurants, and others shopping while wearing oxygen tanks and breathing devices suddenly seem to be all around us – while they have actually been there all along.
The truth is most of us will enter and leave periods of being disabled during our 80 + years on this earth, whether through illness, injury or simply growing old. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one in five adults in the U.S. is now living with a disability. The National Organization on Disability states that there are 56 million disabled persons – the largest minority in the U.S. New categories of disability are emerging through medical research in fields such as neurodiversity, bio-psychiatry, and disabilities of aging and learning. The percentage of disabled persons will continue to increase with certain health conditions, such as depression, traumatic brain injuries, attention-deficit disorder, autism spectrum, autoimmune disease, spinal cord injuries, and dementia, for example.
Almost all of us will experience being disabled sometime in our lifetimes, and it is likely that most of us will not know how to be disabled. We will not have been acculturated in the same way most of us have learned how to be of a particular race or gender. It is clear that we need to start looking at disability as we do any other challenge in life. It is time we see disability as a part of each person’s life. The line is thin between “us” and “them” when seen from this perspective. We will all benefit when we prepare for disability, rather than try and hide from it.
A lot will change with a shift in consciousness: our language, our attitudes, our sensitivity, our sense of inclusion and our definitions. The old way of viewing disability as a curse, a tragic turn of fate, or a misfortune will be replaced by claiming disability as a normal and expected part of the human life cycle. We will learn how to be disabled, and, in the process, learn how to live with an expanded view of our shared humanity through bonding with those others who are also disabled.
When my husband broke both large bones in his lower left leg in January of this year, we had no idea of how to manage daily life. We came to appreciate wheelchairs, crutches, casts of many types, walkers and eventually, canes. We learned that while medications were necessary for managing chronic pain, some had significant negative side effects and were best avoided. And when he had physical therapy three times a week and sat in the waiting room, surrounded by people in wheelchairs, on crutches, or walkers, he became part of the “village” it takes to get well and recover the full use of his leg. He told his “tripped while walking the dog” story many times to others who listened with compassion, and then they shared theirs with him. His disability consciousness grew and, in the process, he developed a new identity as a disabled person that has forever shaped his perception of those with disabilities.
Changes in our culture are being reflected in changes in our attitudes and even in the political process. When Donald Trump mocked a disabled reporter, much of the U.S. reacted with shock and outrage at his discrimination. Later, during the Democratic convention, Mrs. Clinton’s many years of work on behalf of disabled children was praised and celebrated and one of the most warmly received speakers was a woman with a disability, Anastasia Somoza, , who was given an ovation for her powerful remarks. As a former Rehab Counselor, I couldn’t have felt more proud and happy. As an American, I saw the intentional inclusion of Anastasia as a milestone in our culture’s evolution toward a more compassionate society and a statement to reject the politics of racism, discrimination and bigotry.