I’m having one hell of a back problem. The last two nights, getting out of bed took me fifteen minutes. I can’t look up and have to keep my head at a weird angle all the time. I can’t bend down, either. The pain and the difficulty of moving are turning every single action into a problem, whether it’s eating or working on a game. The simple act of raising a spoon to my mouth to eat some soup is a challenge. It’s wearing me down, making it hard to be creative, taking the joy out of life.
Now imagine if every single day of your life was like that.
My situation is deeply, profoundly unplesant. I don’t think it’s selfish of me to think so. But it’s also a situation that will sooner or later pass. Other people are stuck in situations like this permanently. If what I’m experiencing is difficult (and it is), what is what they are experiencing?
I’m disturbed by our atitudes towards disability. One group of people just wants to ignore the disabled and chronically ill; as long as no-one’s thinking about them, everything is OK. The occasional minor donation to some organization for those poor, alien creatures is enough to assuage most of the middle-class guilt, and the rest can be smoothed over with a nice movie about how even the lowliest of the low can sometimes rise to great success and fame through sheer dogged determination. Surely if one disabled person can play the piano with his toes, the rest of them can’t be that badly off.
The second group is even more disturbing, and growing in power these days. Disabled people are just a waste of resources, they say. In these harsh economic conditions, the state can’t afford to support genetic losers. If you can pull yourself up by your bootstraps like in those movies, if you’re a strong individual with a vision, then you deserve to live, with Ayn Rand’s blessing. But otherwise? Don’t drag the rest of us down with your unworthiness. So what if you have a few pains? Work hard, overcome the odds – success is in your own hands. Invest some money in the right places and you’ll have enough to take care of your medical bills for the rest of your life. What do you mean, you don’t have any money to invest? (Alternatively, “why should the cripple get state support when I don’t?”)
Finally, we have identity politics. People aren’t disabled, they are differently abled. Genetic problems? Disease? Nah, forget about all that science. These people are fine, they are just as God intended them to be. The problem is only that we’re not accepting enough. This can be solved by creating fake, PR-flavoured words that no-one except a tiny group of people will ever use. Why, if people would only start calling little Timothy here differently abled rather than disabled, he’d be perfectly happy, even though he’ll die when he’s twelve because he won’t be able to breathe.
The last bit is an exaggeration, of course, but a relatively mild one. I fully understand the desire of disabled people (who aren’t even a group in any sense; how could they be?) to work against the prejudice and discrimination they face. This is perfectly legit. But not only are terms like differently abled extremely silly, they also distract from the real issues at hand. By turning the physical problems people face into an identity, we conflate their rights as indivuals and their physical conditions, essentially reducing people to their disability. Because you see, disabled people really are disabled. There’s no shame in that – it’s not anyone’s personal fault – but a disability does mean that there are a lot of things you can’t do, or can’t do well. That’s not a discourse, that’s objective reality. But that has nothing to do with people’s rights as human beings or as citizens.
Terms like differently abled make disability sound like it’s harmless, like it’s just a personal preference, a lifestyle choice. It takes the emphasis away from a problem that we should be working to solve (we have the technology to blow up people from halfway across the planet, surely we can make some progress here?) and putting it instead on difference, on group identity. So we don’t need to worry about people, human beings just like us, being disabled and facing many difficulties – instead, there is this group of others, vaguely inspiring in their desire to be like us, who are different from us but also quite able. And when we take away all the government systems that support them, why, we’re just allowing them to participate in the glorious free market just like everyone else. They are, after all, able. To treat them any differently would be nothing short of discrimination.
Furthermore, differently abled seems to suggest that the reason the disabled should be treated like human beings is because they too can work. Not because they are just regular human beings like everyone else who happen to have certain problems, but because they are worthy and willing to prove their worth through hard work. So we reduce the situation to “this group is worthy of human rights” instead of “all human beings have inherent rights.” I find that very troubling.
Fighting prejudice against disabled people is part of the struggle for a better society, and part of the struggle to create a society in which disabled people face fewer difficulties. But that can’t be done by pretending that disability isn’t a real problem. Because if it isn’t a real problem, then people don’t need help, and we don’t need to research ways of healing them. After all, we shouldn’t just be fighting prejudice, we should also be fighting disability itself. We can do that.
There’s nothing wrong with needing help, or needing to be healed. It’s part of being human. None of us go through life without needing both. We can’t get anywhere, socially or politically, without understanding that.
(Now go read what Sara Douglass wrote about The Silence of the Dying. She died yesterday. I’ve never read any of her books, but what she says in that post is very important.)