Who is Disabled?

March 1, 2000

[Essay originally published as an article in The People’s Voice of Franklin County (Massachusetts), Spring 2000]

Who is abled or dis-abled? Western cultural views, conceptualized through our English language, suggest that people are either one or the other. This is a false, unfortunate contrast. Everyone has both "abilities" and "dis-abilities," from childhood through advanced age. It is a very relative concept. Some read and learn music much better than others. Some are math wizards, while others barely can do simple arithmetic. Some are physically coordinated, others relatively uncoordinated. Some people see and understand injustices when others are unable to see them. Some reflect before making choices, others are more compulsive. And one’s abilities or dis-abilities might vary over time and circumstances, depending upon consciousness, age, maturation, challenges, etc. What might be considered a dis-ability in one set of circumstances is considered an ability in others, and vice versa.

Most of my life I have been very healthy and robust. Yet in my early school years I was so physically awkward that no team in school gym class wanted me because I was such a detriment to their success. Then upon reaching the age of thirteen I became very coordinated and was considered among the best athletes throughout high school and college.

I have always been a slow reader and consequently have learned to be more discrete about what I read and consciously allocate time for this important activity. It is one of the reasons I have chosen not to have television. After I became seriously physically "dis-abled" in my late forties, I chose to read and write with ever more intention, and became more sensitive to those people who have to contend with major physical adjustments. Because I was more limited in my physical activities, I developed writing and analytical skills. I became more conscious of right livelihood.

While in Vietnam I came to understand that I possessed a rather arrogant cultural attitude, not at all atypical in our society, but one that so distorts perceptions of reality it is like a sickness, a dis-ability. This attitude had blinded me from seeing the pain that such way of viewing the world was causing. Then I began to understand that such view was also hurting myself. Thus, what is considered a "normal" cognitive ideological view–that my culture and I are superior (super-abled)–very quickly for me became an extraordinary dis-ability. As I came to understand this, I was en-abled to see others in a new, healthier, more equal way, radically changing the nature of my choices and relationships. So a dis-ability can be transformed into a new, even enriched ability. Changes initially seen as dis-abling, as negative or even tragic, whether in the mental or physical dimensions, often stimulate creation of new abilities and sensitivities previously unimagined.

In our culture, unlike Eastern traditions, the concept of pain is something that is unnatural, a dreaded condition to be avoided at all costs. Nonetheless, pain (whether mental, emotional, spiritual or physical) is part of life, and as people are confronted with it face-to-face, they must inevitably choose to honestly acknowledge and embrace it, e.g., through grieving, in order to heal and transcend, choose self-pity by "playing" the unlucky victim, or strive to remain in denial about its existence (e.g., through use of drugs and/or alcohol, obsession with materialism, etc.). But for those who are able to acknowledge their pain, their dis-ability, and pursue a healing process, in whatever form that takes, awareness and sensitivities are developed, enabling new ways of seeing and doing. They become wiser members of the community and are often an inspiration to others!

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