As the international symbol for accessibility, a stick figure using a wheelchair has become nearly synonymous with the way our society conceptualizes disability.
However, the disabled identity encompasses more than just physical mobility issues. Today, the definition of disability favored by most scholars, lawmakers and disabled people is an “activity limitation … reflecting the interaction between features of a person’s body and features of the society in which he or she lives.” Framed like this, disability is understood as a difference that can simply be accommodated by a change in the disabled individual’s environment rather than a medical defect or impairment.
Under this definition, a broad range of conditions — like heart disease, mental illness, chronic migraines and even severe food allergies — all fall under the umbrella of disability. However, because this understanding of disability is not yet reflected in the mainstream, it is unlikely that most people with these conditions would identify themselves as disabled. Still, due to the way their atypical bodies and minds interact with the world around them, they share the quintessential disabled experience.
When segments of disabled people are isolated from the rest of the disabled community, both groups suffer. For the community to thrive and ensure its members receive the support they need, we need to take a holistic approach to the way we envision disability. Rather than limiting our definition to the more common mobility and intellectual conditions that dominate the conversation, we should acknowledge the broad spectrum of the disabled identity.
Because of the more common, stigmatized understanding of “disability” as a medical defect, conditions that do not seem inherently medical or defective are often left out. Some people don’t want to identify with what they see as a negative label and remove themselves from the community by choice. Others never learn disability’s true definition and are never offered the chance to identify as such.
An amputee who has one arm may struggle with cooking in a traditional kitchen that isn’t built for them or driving a traditional car that doesn’t have adapted features. In the same way, a person with bipolar disorder might have trouble conforming to a regular work schedule or concentrating on specific tasks. But when one of these individuals lacks a connection to the disabled community, their functional differences can appear to be inadequacies. If they aren’t seen as disabled, they may not be offered accommodations or ever understand that they deserve for their needs to be met in an unconventional way.
Though these disabilities differ in their specific challenges, the broad definition of disability is meant to unite them in their common experiences of adversity rooted in the way their minds and bodies interact with their environment.
Envisioning a broad conception of disability has enabled the formation of coalitions that otherwise would have never emerged. If it were not for the eclectic alliance of disabled people who collaborated to form the disability rights movement of the late 20th century, it would have been impossible to pass groundbreaking legislation like the Americans with Disabilities Act, which today ensures accommodations and increased equality for a wide range of disabled people.
When certain groups lack a consciousness of their connection to the disabled community or fear joining it due to stigma, it can be harder for them to live with the challenges they face. It can even deter them from asking for help or accommodations when they need them.
For example, someone with anxiety who lacks a connection to the disabled community may worry that their panic attacks are their fault or prove that they are less capable than others. But if this person develops an understanding of their anxiety as a disability, they’ll learn that it does not represent a personal defect and simply requires accommodations that will make their environment more suited to them. And beyond that, they’ll discover a network of people across the world who share similar struggles.
Because of the commonalities felt throughout the community, disability has grown from a pejorative medical diagnosis into an identity with a growing sense of cultural meaning — much more than the blue and white wheelchair depicted on ramps and elevator signs.
We need to ensure that the definition of disability understood in the mainstream becomes closer to the one that is written into laws and celebrated within the community. But to normalize this definition, we need to share it with the rest of the world — and I’m hoping that you share it, too.
Anna Landre is a sophomore in the School of Foreign Service. Discussing Disability appears online every other Tuesday.