People with disabilities are very prevalent in society today, thanks to the Americans with Disability Act (ADA) and other victories of the Disability Rights Movement, but that wasn’t always the case. For centuries, people with disabilities seemed non-existent, not because we were, but because we were hidden from society. Many families that included a member with a disability used to keep that particular member out of mainstream society because it was believed that disability was the result of sin. More specifically, disability was seen as a punishment for a mistake made by the parents or another family member of a child with a disability. Being seen in society with someone who had a disability was a source of shame.
This belief is less prevalent in the 21st century, but does still exist. The belief that disability is a punishment for sin follows, “The Moral Model of Disability,” according to an article written by Deborah Kaplan, former Executive Director of the World Institute on Disability. Under this model, it is believed that disability is something that needs to be healed or cured. For example, a neighbor once told me that I simply had to say the name of the religious figure she followed and my disability would be cured. While disability advocates respect people that hold such beliefs, they believe quite the opposite. Disability is a natural part of life and unless a person dies quickly in an accident or for some other reason, he/she will experience disability at some point in life. According to the Council on Disability Awareness (CDA), 1 in 4 of today’s 20-something-year-olds will experience disability before they reach retirement age. This is one statistic that supports that belief and shows how easily an able-bodied person can become a person with a disability. Having a disability is as natural as having a certain eye color. Imagine for a minute that everyone with blue eyes was believed to be cursed and told they had to be cured because having blue eyes was not normal. Do you or any of your family and friends have blue eyes? How would you or your loved one being considered “not normal” make you feel?
Some people with disabilities say they would not change the fact that they have a disability if given the choice. This may seem strange to able-bodied people, but many people with disabilities say that their disabilities are a part of who they are. I am one of those people. I know that I would not be the same person if I did not have my disability. I am comfortable with who I am and see no reason why I need to be cured. No matter where you stand on this issue, the fact remains that whether a person was born with a disability or acquired one later in life, he/she cannot change what is, any more than someone can change his/her eye color and many people with disabilities would choose not to. What is something about yourself you would never want to change? How would you feel if someone told you that you should change it? You’d be angry and a little insulted, right? Remember that the next time you see someone with a disability and find yourself thinking that he/she needs to be cured. Also, remember that anyone can acquire a disability at any given moment. Next time you feel the need to validate your own shortcomings by “fixing” what is a natural part of the human experience, take a minute to ask yourself, “Would I still feel this way if I had a disability?”
Note: This article was originally published in the Winter 2012 edition of the Access Center for Independent Living newsletter, the Accessible Community Examiner, which I wrote for the two and half years I worked there. The Access Center for Independently is a non-profit in Dayton, Ohio that works to ensure that people with disabilities have full and complete access to the community in which they choose to live.