21 January 2013

Disability and Impairment: Get It Right

Here's a sentiment I loathe but hear all the time — "Everyone's a little disabled!"

It's got cutesy, warm-your-heart, inspiration porn written all over it.

"Everyone has some kind of disability. Everyone has some kind of limitation. Everyone has something that's difficult for them."

Except that this word "disability" does not mean what you seem to think it means.

You mean "impairment."

An impairment is a limitation of an ability or a lack of an ability. Not being able to hear is an impairment. Not being able to walk is an impairment.

I have astigmatism and myopia. These are visual impairments. But because I have glasses, and because society does not (currently) stigmatize wearing glasses (hey, many people even wear them to appear stereotypically intelligent these days!), astigmatism and myopia are not disabilities. Interestingly, visual impairments requiring glasses were previously disabilities, as evidenced by such sentiments from the early 1900's that it's bad form to hit someone with glasses—analogous to the sexist sentiment that it's bad form (or downright emasculating) for a man to hit a woman (but not a man?).

My friend Shain Neumeier has a cleft lip and palate, which is a facial deformity.* It's not an impairment, because it doesn't actually limit any typical physical or mental abilities. But it is a disability because of the societal stigma against physical deformities. The same concept applies to folks who are fat. (This concept has actually been explored in disability studies.) Being fat isn't generally an impairment of any kind—though it can be, sometimes, with mobility impairments—but it is a disability because of the way that society constructs fatness.

Take the Deaf community. Those who identify with Deaf culture don't generally consider themselves disabled. I've heard one Deaf man refer to Deaf folks as a linguistic minority. Yet they are considered under the Americans with Disabilities Act to be disabled (and therefore covered by its provisions) because deafness is regarded as a disability. Functionally, deafness is a disability because hearing folks are dominant and privileged in our societies writ large, and are not expected to know or understand American Sign Language (ASL) or any other manual language. Yet if everyone on the planet were deaf, while deafness would remain an impairment, it would no longer be a functional disability.

Similarly, if everyone were paraplegic, the idea of stairs or multi-story buildings would be entirely anathema, because these concepts would simply not exist. They would not be feasible constructions. Paraplegia would continue to be an impairment, but it would not be a disability.

Disability is not merely a noun. It is properly understood as a verbal noun—that is, as an act. People are disabled. That's the passive voice on the verb there, for grammar-philes. People are disabled by societal, attitudinal, and legal barriers to equal opportunity, access, and inclusion for anyone whose physical or mental appearance, presentation, form, or function diverges from the norm.

Everyone has impairments of some kind. Some are more noticeable than others. Some have names, labels, or diagnoses. But not all impairments are disabilities, and not all disabilities are the result of impairments. There is an important distinction that is frequently missed. So yes, everyone has impairments of some kind. But not everyone who has some kind of impairment is also disabled! And not everyone who is disabled is disabled because of an impairment!

To claim that "everyone" is disabled is not merely inaccurate but erasing. It's a statement born of ignorance or privilege or both, and it minimizes and de-legitimizes the lived disabled experience of those of us who are, in fact, disabled by the societies in which we live.

* Shain has had some reconstructive surgery done, but visually appears to have a cleft lip and palate while also having unimpaired and typical physical functioning.


  1. Thank you. I like your analysis.

    It also makes the term "differently abled" a clear case where political correctness gets the wrong end of the stick.

  2. I totally agree. I have severe visual impairment, but I would not consider it a disability in any way. It almost prevented me from getting a driver's license, though, and that would have made my life very different.

  3. Your discernment is quite clear, and much needed. Thank you for writing and posting this piece.

  4. Two things. 1. I really appreciated you starting the conversation on that term.Thank you! By saying "everyone's a little disabled", people don't get they are minimizing the import of disability and avoiding the discomfort of dealing with ableism as a result. 2.Shain Neumeier is one of the coolest people I've ever met so thanks for the shout out for Shain, even in this context.

    Ok I'm done

    1. Thank you very much! *Hug* You are awesome as well! :D

  5. labels, labels, labels. People are obsessed with them. I have a disability and think 90% of what holds people back is how we label ourselves and are labelled by others.


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