Disability — it’s a word that makes every other deaf person I know cringe, anger boiling in them as they protest the label being applied. They are separate from those people, they can do anything but hear, they are not limited by deafness. They see the word disability as a scarlet letter, as it if were a slur negating anything positive.
The summer after I left high school, I finally got over my self consciousness and asked my grandmother if I could have her old cane. Her knee surgery had made it too difficult to use it any longer, so she used a walker. The old, claw-foot mobility aid was bestowed upon me, and I quickly wrapped it in rainbow duct tape I had bought from a nearby dollar store.
Slipping knee braces on seemed to push in all the throbbing in my legs that meant walking was a challenge in keeping myself from bursting into tears of pain. The cane by my side eased the weight off the weak muscle. It was as if I were in a dream, returning to days where I ran across fields and tumbled across heavy mats layed out by the ballet teacher at my elementary school. These are things I can still do, though not as easily. Fatigue and pain intertwine for me in ways that confuse my doctors, and it has been only recently that I have accepted that I may never be able to answer the question, “What is wrong with you?”
The reason I can’t answer that isn’t because of my lack of diagnosis — it is because nothing is wrong with me. People often view disability through the medical model, where “disability” means that your body or mind do not function as they should. Some people find this useful for some of their disorders and conditions, and some people with the same ones reject that sort of perspective.
I choose to view my disability through the lens of the social model. This states that a person is disabled because society does not accommodate their needs. To use an analogy, consider attempting to charge an Android phone with an iPhone charger. Trying to cram the charger into the device is like going to either damage the port for the phone or break the cord (or some combination of both). Even if you were to somehow twist it to just the right angle for the current to pass through, the charge will probably not hold, and parts of both will probably come out worse for wear.
Is there something wrong with the phone because the charger is incompatible? Of course not. One simply needs to use the correct charger — preferably one built for the exact model of phone, but often times what is most readily available is a universal charger. It may break easily, but it can work just as well.
What does this mean in plain language? I may be able to climb a few flights of stairs, but any of my friends watching me pull myself up the rails knows that the following is racing through my head: “I hope I don’t fall. My hips hurt so much. I can probably skip my upper body workout at the gym later, because this is definitely sufficient. Ow. How many stairs are there?!”
Nothing is wrong with my body — the stairs just were not built for it. The elevator was, though!
This does not mean I reject the label “disabled” — I wear this identity with pride. Disability is not a negative term, devoid of culture. Disabled people are everywhere. We are not defined by what we can or cannot do, we are defined by our humanity. Different disabilities have cultures unique to them, and the Disability Rights Movement has always emphasized that we all stand together. Nothing is wrong with us. We do not need to be “fixed” or pitied. We need a society that respects the diversity of human bodies and minds.
Those of us in the signing community encounter a tremendous amount of ableism from deaf people who have a sense of superiority over us — they act as if an identity cannot be both a culture and a disability. They act as if language is the only thing that separates us, when every disability has language unique to it. Many ignore that signing is not limited to the Deaf community. Multitudes of hearing people who are unable to produce speech rely signing. Some Disability languages are simply ways of communication that is different, such as the use of typing when signing and speech are both impossible, or grammar structures and methods of communication that are atypical. Others are simply jargon that are best known within our community, such as terms like “stimmy” in Autistic Culture (which refers to something that is sensory-pleasing).
At a summer conference for Disability advocacy, I had the opportunity to speak with someone whose name is has been printed in several places on my class schedules over the years, telling me which building I need to rush over to for a class. After a line of hearing people at the conference finished asking him questions through an interpreter, I laughed when I saw Dr. I. King Jordan look around and ask, “Where’s that deaf student who spoke earlier?”
I came over to him, being the only person in the room who could speak to him without the interpreter, and we continued a conversation that I had worried would alienate half of the room. Dr. I. King Jordan was the first Deaf president of Gallaudet University and one of the people involved in the Disability Rights Movement in campaigns such as that to establish the Americans with Disabilities Act. In this room, he was surrounded by people using wheelchairs and canes, people with noise-cancelling headphones on to avoid overstimulation, and people with disabilities that aren’t easily seen or guessed. In this room, neither of us saw ourselves as separate from these people. We were a whole community — sure, we had our differences, but even he and I as Deaf people were different in our experiences of Deafhood.
Disability is not a bad word. Disability does not mean “can’t.” Disability does not mean someone is lesser. Disability does not mean something is wrong with us.
Disability means power. Disability means diversity. Disability means that we need accommodations in certain environments. Disability means, “I can — but society must understand that we all have different ways of doing things.”
It is time for our community to stop putting down disabled people and to stop acting like some of us are better than others. We must stand together and fight for a world that allows all people to exist as they are, and allows all people to access the means of success… whether you take the stairs or elevator, whether your body takes an “iPhone charger” or an “Android charger.”