What a disability is has become very difficult to define.
There is a level of it that’s quite easy. A person who is paralyzed, blind, deaf, missing a limb, or who has a significant cognitive impairment clearly can be considered as having a disability.
But that word, “impairment,” is part of where things get a little tricky. Impairment implies an inability of some kind, but unable to do what? As a wheelchair user, for instance, I sit for many hours each day, while a person with chronic back pain from a damaged disc cannot sit for long. Who is the “person with a disability?”
Are you in that class of “math challenged” people who run screaming from an algebra textbook? If not, I’m sure you know someone who is. Did you know that this falls into a formal category of learning disability called “dyscalculia”?
Learning disabilities are part of a very large class of people with disabilities who have “invisible” disabilities. In fact, almost three quarters of the total population of people who are considered to have a disability could not be identified as such from exterior appearance.
Many people with vision or hearing loss have enough for it to not be apparent in many situations. A person with fibromyalgia, which manifests as fatigue, or someone with multiple sclerosis – most of whom have the “relapse/remitting” type – exists for much of their day with no apparent manifestation of it. Or else what they are doing is unaffected by this particular characteristic of their lives.
Many people with invisible disabilities are far more limited in their lives than someone with a visible one. Chronic pain is far more impairing than not being able to walk. We can easily call each of these a disability, but isn’t the ultimate question whether and how someone functions with that disability?
In the drafting of the Americans with Disabilities Act, passed into law in 1990, they attempted to define disability as having to do with whether one could perform one or more “essential life activities,” of which walking was clearly identified as one. But the Congress had to come back years later and clarify the definition because the Supreme Court made a number of decisions that had the effect of narrowing the definition to the degree that people clearly intended to be protected by the law were put outside of its boundaries.
So, for one, it’s very tricky to define who has a disability. What is an “impairment?” And do we count it as a disability if it doesn’t limit a person from doing what they choose to do? If you have dyscalculia, you aren’t going to choose nuclear physics, but it doesn’t change the fact that you have this characteristic. Yet if an employer denies you a promotion because you can’t do math when math is not essential to the job, then you do you deserve civil rights protection afforded by the ADA?
Do you get what I’m getting at? At some point in everyone’s lifetime, if not for all of it, we have such characteristics that fall in this range. It might be significant or nominal, visible or invisible, temporary or lifelong, and it might or might not limit you from doing what you want.
In other words, who has a disability is actually a pretty huge class, almost to the point where the word becomes almost meaningless.
Because what counts above all else is that each of us have the freedom and the right to pursue what we think is possible, and what we desire in our lives. In our present world of greater health and accessibility and adaptive options, who has what disability means far less than ever. What quality of life is possible for them and what they have to contribute means much more than ever.