What is Disability?

In the spirit of Disability Employment month, I am going to try to or share an article everyday about disability.

Today, being the the first day of the month, I am going to start broadly, and with the basics. I think about disability every day, through most waking moments. Therefore, it surprises me when I realize that others might go for long periods of time for thinking about disability, or may not have a good knowledge base for what disability is.

Disability is a general term for a condition, illness, or impairment that hinders major life activit(ies). This definition is adapted from the Americans with Disabilities Act, and covers the ways in which a disabled person cannot function independently in major life activities. What I find more interesting and informative is the ways in which a person with a disability does manage to do major life activities.

Some of the responsibility for adaption falls on society. Society is responsible for public access accommodations. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, this includes ramps, elevators, closed captioning at movie theaters, braille on signage, and service dog access; there are many more ways in which public buildings and spaces must be accommodating to people with disabilities, but this is not the blog post to elaborate on that. Simply put, wheelchair users are not responsible for providing their own ramps.

Other accommodations are personal to the disabled individual; some people use specialized equipment such as mobility devices, oxygen tank, service animals, hearing aids, and prosthetics. Some autistic people and people with ADHD use fidget toys or weighted vests as a way to calm down in a stressful environment.

Disability sometimes means adjusting the society’s expectations that are unrealistic for a person with a particular disability. It’s not realistic for a dyslexic person who has trouble with spelling to handwrite a paper; a paper composed with speech-to-text software is an acceptable alternative. Blind people cannot be expected to read a handout in front of them; it is an easy accommodation to provide that document in electronic format to the person.

Society expects that people are capable of getting transportation to a store (whether public transportation, para-transit, driving, or walking), going up and down the aisles to find what one needs, getting through the check out line, taking the transportation home, unpacking the items, and then using them. A large task like that might be too much energy for some chronically ill people, some wheelchair users might not have access to transportation that works for them, or some autistic people might melt down in the bright lights and loud sounds of the store. For all of these people, it might be easier to buy things online. This is an example of an everyday process that non disabled people use for convenience, while disabled people use it as an accommodation to mitigate the effects of their disability,

In a roundabout way, I am trying to say that disability is more than an impairment or condition that restricts daily life; disability is a different perspective of how we disabled folks move through the world. The reason I think of disability everyday is because I am constantly asking myself: How can I fit in a world that was not built for my needs? How can I accommodate myself, and how can society accommodate itself for me?

Similarly, we must all be asking ourselves: What expectations of society are unreasonable? Which ones can be more lenient, and how can we make the world a little easier for everyone in it?

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