Who gets to decide when a person is disabled? Shouldn’t a doctor’s assessment be enough to convince the rest of the population? That doesn’t seem to be the case according to the comments on an article I wrote for Rooted in Rights earlier this year that referenced my invisible disability and the use of a disabled parking permit. The post set off a chain reaction that ignited the disability community and essentially pitted those of us who don’t always use assistive devices against individuals who use wheelchairs or other mobility assistance.
Some of the responses accused those of us with disabilities that can’t be seen of being lazy because we simply didn’t want to walk. I had to read those words more than once to believe they’d actually been written. How can anyone know the extent of someone’s disability without access to medical records? And, if we have been declared disabled by our physician(s), should we not take their word over the declarations of random strangers?
Merriam Webster defines a disability as “a physical, mental, cognitive, or developmental condition that impairs, interferes with, or limits a person’s ability to engage in certain tasks or actions or participate in typical daily activities and interactions.” And under the Americans with Disabilities Act, if you have “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity,” you are considered a person with a disability.
Neither of these definitions specify the exact nature of the disability. Persons with a lung disease, multiple sclerosis, paraplegia, and rheumatoid arthritis could all be considered disabled even though they don’t require the same assistance when they travel or to accomplish life’s daily activities. The cause of a disability can differ from person to person, but as disabled people, our experiences are quite often similar.
But by any of the above definitions, I am disabled. I certainly don’t advertise my disability, but there are days when it’s more prominent than others. That doesn’t mean I’m more disabled when I have to use a cane or a walker and less when my pain levels are tolerable and I don’t require assistive devices. I am disabled whether I’m standing, siting, or lying down. Just like the rest of us in this group.
We deal with pain, bodies that don’t always function as well as we’d like, and the inability to complete tasks that non-disabled people find quite ordinary. But we’re here, and while some of our medical issues may be resolved one day, for the most part, this is where we’re going to stay.
So when we argue among ourselves in an effort to claim our disability is greater than anyone else’s, we give the world something else to scoff at. Nondisabled people often question our rights to use certain restroom stalls or parking spaces. Aren’t their questions enough to solidify our need to be a connected group instead of questioning each other?
Disability rights have come so far in the past few decades, but they still have a long way to go. We need better accommodations and overall improved accessibility that will enable all of us to interact with the rest of the world without feeling that we have to prove we have a right to live. We need fewer people standing in the way of our lives. While we focus on advocacy, let’s also remember that we are all in this together. Separate and apart from one another we can achieve something, but together, we can do so much more.