Like many other disabled people I don’t spend much time thinking about how disabled I am. In any case I’d rather think of the things I can do, not the things I can’t…

By Tom Jamison

There’s a problem with the word ‘disability’. Somehow it, immediately implies that something is inadequate, weak or wrong – not just medically but with the person themselves. Other ‘dis’ words confirm the label: discord, disarray or even discombobulated! I know several disabled people personally, that hate the term and have been scratching around for something better for years: ‘differently able’ tends to be the clumsy front-runner. At least it’s an upgrade on the old school terms: cripple, handicapped or sufferer.

Few of us actively seek to be known by a segregationist term although we may well accept some necessity to describe our differences.

 I’m treading carefully because I know how sensitive this issue is – and I can really only speak for myself – but I do think that as dangerous as the concept sounds, that being disabled, is not always a disability. 

Without cheapening the experiences of disabled people or making excuses for the occasional idiot that doesn’t understand why you’re not trying out for the Paralympic team, I believe that disability can bestow positive qualities and attributes that should be celebrated.

Here are a few ideas…

Being disabled can be a pain – and can be painful. It’s not about being ‘brave’ or inspirational when I suggest that most of us disabled people accept it and get on with things. To do so, of course, sometimes means tackling life in different ways. 

Problem-solving is bread and butter for plenty of disabled people that navigate workplaces, transport systems and other public places and infrastructure that were never designed to cope with us. It’s not a Dickensian experience but we’ve all been in situations where we’ve needed to apply that extra bit of thinking or even charm to get along; qualities we may never have quite developed in another life.

That great Shakespearean quote: “Some are born great, some acquire greatness, some have greatness thrust upon them” could have been written for disabled people. 

Rarely are successful people, in any sense of the word, not blessed with some level of determination. Disability offers stark choices. The primary decision is to let life happen to you or else, to make you mark on life. It doesn’t always feel like a choice, but it is.

A choice repeated becomes a habit – and when every small thing requires determination, it becomes an everyday tool that disabled people use easily and without thinking.

Focusing the mind
Pressure focuses the mind. Deadlines or other difficulties challenge us to do our best, sometimes when the odds aren’t in our favour. Physicist, Stephen Hawking, outlived the expectations of his doctors’ initial diagnosis of MS and a prognosis of mortality within two years. The shock of the news clearly motivated him to applying renewed vigour to his studies of the universe – perhaps more so than he would have otherwise. 

Different perspective
One size has never fitted ‘all’. Similarly, it would be daft to think that disabled people have the same views and perspectives (even among themselves as a community) as able bodied people. This is an essential fact to consider if businesses and public service organisations want to succeed.

Different opinions and ways of working provide richer service outputs. This fact underlines the value of considering the views of disabled people (and other diverse groups).

Different knowledge
Disabled people do things differently. They may use assistive technology or ask for adaptations or reasonable adjustments that for the most part among their peers are not considered. While some might argue that this extra effort or expense is too much to apply for such a niche group, they fail to see the bigger picture.  

The positives of an inclusive or universally designed environment are that it is easier
for everyone to use. A simple example being the similarity of need between parents with pushchairs and wheelchair users. 

Generally speaking, it’s only necessary to adapt something once, which will then potentially benefit many.  Similarly, where one person uses an adaptation, others will notice – the knowledge spreads – helping other people to become more effective and claim their full potential in all manner of ways. 

Get an eyeful!
Stare all you want! I’m disabled and I’m making life work!

‘Inspiration’ gets a bad press at times. True, it can be sickly and patronising, but it can also be uplifting and life-changing. People need pioneers and role models even on a small scale such as other disabled people doing well in their school, college or workplace.

Note I said, “People need”. The influence of disabled people doing their best isn’t just influential on disabled people, it inspires others as well.

This is the minefield. It’s unfair and inaccurate to say that without disability, that disabled people would develop either fewer or greater gifts than they have. Of course, not all people who are on the autistic spectrum, for example, are what we might call a savant – that is a person with an extraordinary talent for say, music or mathematics. Very few people are in this number. I could quote figures from different sources but I can’t help feeling that we’re not even sure that we have a good grip on how many people are on the spectrum and even how far that spectrum extends. (In any case, it’s possible to be a savant and not be on the so-called spectrum at all.)

Other people, with particular sensory or learning (intellectual) disabilities are sometimes thought of as having some form of compensatory ‘super’ talent or sense. This is mythmaking. Again, the distribution of ‘gifts’ among all people is likely to be very similar, irrespective of being disabled or not.

Just a term
Being ‘disabled’ is just a term, made of nothing more than words. The term could really be extended to anyone, with any weakness. Are people that can’t swim, can’t drive, can’t sing or can’t make up their mind, disabled?

Maybe disabled people are only as disabled as their label.