“‘Disabled’ is not a bad word.”
I see this phrase pasted across social media with increasing frequency. As much as I appreciate people with disabilities sharing their perspectives, I have to admit, this particular arrangement of words makes my skin quiver. “Disabled” feels like a bad word.
I was raised by a pint-sized woman with an effusive heart and a strong moral compass. She consciously and subconsciously demonstrated to me that I was not disabled. I had a disability, just like I also had blond hair. She taught me that my disability was one characteristic comprising my external appearance — not who I was. I embraced this person-first perspective, infusing it deeper within my psyche the more I understood how dangerous it could be to internalize being labeled “disabled.”
Through the conscious crafting of my identity around my interests, passions, and choice of major in college, I did everything I could to shape it. I tried to mitigate the insulting ramifications of a society determined to see me as nothing but disabled.
The definition of disabled implies limitation, lack, and brokenness. In my mind, saying “I am disabled” indicates that I am inherently unworthy and less than. It signals to the world that the entirety of my humanity is wrapped up in second-class citizenship. It makes me feel inferior.
I am not disabled. I have a disability. To better understand why I so staunchly embrace the second declaration over the first, you should probably know that my degree is in sociology.
I believe that disability is a social construct — something we create and give meaning to based on a shared idea. Essentially, the concept of disability and everything it entails with regard to limitations, lack, brokenness, and differentness is created. It does not exist unless we believe in it.
If the word “disability” had never existed, who would be to say that the totality of my characteristics deemed limitations would mean anything at all? If we, as a collective, decided instead that the wide spectrum of physical movement, speech, and coordination indicated nothing more than human diversity, what kind of world would that be for those of us who are “disabled”?
As difficult as it is to imagine this kind of social arrangement, I try to. I try to move through my day remembering the words my mom told me over and over again as a child.
You are just like everybody else. You are beautiful. You are brilliant. You are worthy. You deserve it all.
I am not disabled. I have a disability. As long as society continues to define me in terms of the physical manifestations of my body, the things about me that are wrong, and the ways in which I don’t measure up, I will return to this declaration.
I am a dedicated friend, a business owner, a cynic with a warm heart, a daughter, and a sociology alumna. Until the world can join me in recognizing that these and other characteristics define my humanity and affirm my integrity and worthiness, I will continue to remind them that I am not my disability. I am a human first, and I have never been disabled.
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