Disability is not inability. Disability is only in the mind. Do not call me disabled but a woman living with a disability. Do not call me visually impaired, I prefer being called blind. Disability is the interaction of impairments with the environment and people’s attitudes. These are some of the many positions people hold on the subject of disability. As a woman with a disability myself, I understand some of the challenges we face as a community and how we wish the rest of the world would interact with our disabilities and us as hosts of such disabilities. However, it is increasingly becoming obvious that ‘disability’ feels like a bad word and people are trying their hardest to disassociate with it.
First of all, in my view, from my lived experience no one can voluntarily elect to be disabled. There is absolutely nothing advantageous about being disabled in my view. Borrowing from the school of thought that disability is the interaction between an impairment, the environment and people’s attitudes I wish to paraphrase that indeed a disability is a limitation or a host of physical, health and/or mental limitations at a personal, environmental and in the interactions with people level. That collation of disadvantages to me is why I am of the opinion that nobody would voluntarily elect to be disabled because a disability is a key to all kinds of disadvantages more so in some forms, spaces, economic groups, genders etc.
However, the bone of contention with disability has always been about mankind’s feelings about disability and how those feelings spill over to the treatment of the host of the disability. I applaud the schools of thought that have done tremendous work in bringing us to today’s terminology of people living with disabilities because it is important to distinguish how we view disability and how we treat the hosts. By and large, disabilities negatively impact people’s lives and it is fine to be wary of that. It is fine to make efforts to prevent disabilities if we can. But how do we separate our contempt for disability, for lack of a better word, from the host? How do we positively have dialogue about the ills of disability without injuring the host? How do we attempt to manage disability without inferring we feel the host is a burden and throw them in a depressive mode? How do we encourage positive self-image of a disability host without pressuring them into a radical divorce from ‘disability’?
So why does it sometimes feel like disability is a bad word? Why are people with disabilities made to feel like besides trying to adapt to realities of living with a disability they must always endeavour to wash themselves clean of any association with disability? Why do we seem to be pushing mantras like a ‘disability is only in the mind’. Or the only disability is a bad attitude.’ Some people would go as far promoting the idea that it’s possible to have a disability but not be ‘disabled’. I applaud those who are disabled but declare they do not see themselves as disabled. If that thinking is empowering for them that is fine except when it starts becoming the gold standard of living with a disability. When it creates the impression disability is an attitude. In my view, that is condescending.
Disability is as real as daylight. The environment and people’s attitudes do play a very significant role in how it impacts someone’s impairment. As someone who is physically disabled, my environment plays a big role on how mobile I can manage to be. How independent I can be. And people’s attitudes toward my limitations similarly influence the scope of impact of my impairments on my life at large. What never goes away is the impairment. I am still physically challenged and that impairs me and at times, drains me too. I cannot psych myself out of that truth. Surely, my attitude too plays a big role but only to endure it. Not make it disappear. After a long day of endurance in my wheelchair I will go home and still face the pain of subjecting my impaired body to long hours in the wheelchair coupled with the impacts of transfers, bumpy roads etc. No amount of positive thinking, support system and modified assistive devices can take that away completely. Therefore, unless I can jump out of my wheelchair, walk and have every impaired bit of me restored, my disability just doesn’t disappear based on my own attitude, public attitudes and environmental adjustments. All these things help but only to reduce the scale of impact of the impairment on the lives of people with disabilities.
I wish I could say I am proudly disabled. To me there is nothing to be proud or ashamed of by virtue of being disabled. I have limitations that I did not consciously seek. It just is the way things are. I, Georgina Mumba, am a host of paraplegia. I host the impairment and the consequences that come with it. How I adapt to this reality is a whole other conversation. How society treats me as a host of my disability is, too, another conversation. What I take pride in every so often is the victories I realise in my quest to make the most of an unfortunate reality. I celebrate my achievements in spaces where my disability significantly negatively influences and in those times I prove wrong those with unhealthy attitudes towards me as a host of a disability.
So, is disability such a bad word that we must fear being associated with it? Should disability be used as a shaming word? What is the policy on successfully living with a disability? How can we allow people to acknowledge themselves and their disabilities without making them feel anxious about how that speaks to their attitudes? How do we not make people with disabilities feel our acknowledgement and celebration of their being and efforts are strictly dependent on their radical divorce from disability? This is not to mean there is nothing to be said about healthy and unhealthy attitudes towards management of a disability. The universe clearly hands some crappy cards but that does not mean we must throw our hands in the air and throw away even the little we can do with our abilities. That part is in one’s best interest as it is in the general community’s.
As a woman with a disability my challenge in life is, I often wonder how well am I managing my disability and how well am I doing just as a human being? Every so often there is a video, a link or just a reference about an inspirational disabled person and I wonder if I am adapting as successfully as those of our celebrated colleagues? I hear of people who used their disability as impetus to shatter in numerous glass ceilings and I wonder what we think of those whose limitations are exactly the very barriers determining the ceilings of their dreams?
Is disability really an attitude? Or that in itself is a disabling attitude?
Georgina Mumba is a Statistician by profession, a blogger and a Disability Inclusion Advocate and Consultant based in Lusaka Zambia. You can access a Ted Talk by Gina Mumba https://embraceeveryone.wordpress.com/2016/09/22/what-is-your-individual-disability-policy/
email@example.com (October 2018)