Many of us quite literally walk through life without having to think about the world from a disabled person’s point of view. It is a privilege we don’t need to think about until we happen upon a person with a disability, or perhaps a handicapped parking space that we can’t park in. Most of the time, though, we are able to live without considering what the world would look like if our body didn’t function in the precise way that we expect a body to function.
In fact, when you think about it, the notion that we expect each person’s body to function the same way seems a bit silly. Bodies come in all shapes and sizes, with different strengths and weaknesses. Yet we have constructed a dichotomous world, not between those who can and those who cannot – disability does not mean that a person can’t function – but between those who can and those who have to overcome the structure of society.
If you think about it, our entire world is constructed for a person with a particular ability level, and anyone who doesn’t have that particular ability must work a little harder. For example, we have created a world in which most ceilings are well over 6 feet high. But if instead we made ceilings 5 and a half feet tall, anyone 5’6” or higher would be considered disabled because they couldn’t walk in our world without having to stoop. In this way, we socially construct the idea of disability based on our idea of the perfectly-abled body and the world we have built to accommodate it. In the same way that we accommodate people of a certain height, we also choose to use stairs instead of ramps or elevators as our main means of ascension, accommodating only those of us who can use stairs. But how can we assume that everyone should be able to use their bodies in the same way when we know how different bodies can be from one another.
For that matter, is calling a person “disabled” really even fair? Firstly, it makes the person’s ability status their defining feature, instead of for instance using the term “person with a disability,” which first and foremost acknowledges the personhood of the individual. And what about the word “disability”? Is it fair to assume that a person whose body works differently is inherently “unable,” instead of just differently-abled? Of course, just as is the case for any group of people, it is impossible to find one answer that all people of different ability levels will agree upon. However, that doesn’t preclude the need to have a conversation about it.
Having conversations about the words we use and the way we use them is perhaps the first step in understanding the way we as a society think about and treat each other. But how can we find the answers if we ignore the discussion? From the time we are little, we are encouraged not to look at or ask questions about people with disabilities out of fear of being rude. How does that translate to our adult ability to talk to, with, and about those of us who navigate our carefully constructed world with a little more difficulty? And how do we begin the discussion when we are so afraid of insulting the community that we are trying to better understand?