Dissing Ability

Warning: This post is contentious and may trigger uncomfortable feelings.

In my experience, one of the first things people with disabilities talk about is – their disabilities. It’s as if not only the world at large, but we too, think first and foremost about our burdens, our blindness, our CP, our deafness, our otherness. I know I have been guilty of this. For years, as I wrote in a lead letter to ‘The Herald’  ‘…my disability became the only thing I identified about myself for decades, and a heavy burden to carry…’

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But, because I now see that as dissing ability, I no longer identify with my impairment – I refuse to talk about what I can’t do, and mention that only in the most cursory terms; the letter references a period when I was in mainstream employment between 1990 and 2003 –  and I notice when people with impairments mention them, and use their impairments to explain why they have no work, no ambition, no hope.

Is this social conditioning? Perverse pride? The problem is, that when we do talk about our impairments, we don’t seem especially proud. We don’t sit up straighter and beam encouragement, but avoid eye contact and shuffle a bit uncomfortably, cry or grow indignant and angry. As anyone would who is forced to talk about what they can’t do!

The disability mainstream appears (from one who is admittedly rather outside the debate on this matter) to be hampered by its insistence on degrees of disability / suffering / loss. ‘I’m more disabled than you’ implies a wheelchair user to an ambulant cerebral palsied person. A double-amputee trumps a deaf person… It is such a pity that those of us with impairments still seem to play the game of compare and contrast with each other, and to find some comfort in a kind of system of consolatory comparison. We all do this, to a greater or lesser degree. And it would be great if we could stop.

Comparisons are odious. Instead of identifying ourselves according to what we can’t do – a lamentable impossibility which, btw, government enforcers also need to take a serious look at – we should focus on our common ambitions, our friendships and how we can draw together. We are doing so, more than ever. Having leaped past that  thorny introduction, ‘what’s wrong with you?’ many of us do draw support from each other. Yet despite all our good intentions, rather than learning to focus on our positive qualities – are you a great kisser with a sense of humour? – we still define ourselves by what we can’t do, and allow ourselves to be characterised with heroic language: a great tryer, really inspirational, an amazing person, wow, how fantastic….

Despite the media’s attempts to dress things up, I am heartened from watching “Employable Me” to notice that, by and large, employers, interviewers or members of the public seem a fair-minded and compassionate lot, well able to look past the old and tired narratives of ‘I can’t’ that characterise so many adults’ search for employment. Often, interviewers prompt the candidates to take a fresh look at what they do well and to leave behind the limiting beliefs and assumptions that have so far stopped them being successful.

Thanks for reading.


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