At the age of eleven I was diagnosed with bone cancer. Treatment required a surgeon cut off part of my left leg. I’ve grown up wearing prosthetics, and today, at 31, they’ve become part of my normal. Yet in spite of this lengthy period of adjustment, I still choke on the word ‘disability’.
I avoid uttering the phrase ‘I am disabled’. I do not like attaching the “D” Word to myself. If necessary, I try to be careful to say that ‘I have a disability’. I’m prepared to to acknowledge that I have a disability, but I am very resistant to the idea that it is central to my person.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines the prefix ‘dis-‘ as ‘denoting reversal or absence of an action or state’. It defines ability as ‘possession of the means or skill to do something’. The World Health Organization’s definition almost makes me gag: ‘Disabilities is an umbrella term, covering impairments, activity limitations, and participation restrictions. An impairment is a problem in body function or structure; an activity limitation is a difficulty encountered by an individual in executing a task or action; while a participation restriction is a problem experienced by an individual in involvement in life situations.’ I’m left with this sense of being discredited and dehumanized as a result of a physical trait that I cannot change.
My problem with the “D” word is the emphasis – it creates identity through that which is not. This conflicts directly with the way I approach living. I look around and see endless possibilities.
Yes, many things require persistence and a bit of brainstorming, but usually I feel more limited by perceptions of my prosthetic, and my fear that it will be perceived as a weakness or a fault, than by the prosthetic itself.
None of the accepted synonyms are any better. My good friend Malcolm Daly likes the word ‘gimp’. In fact, he often refers to ‘gimps’ and ‘normals’. I must admit, I was initially uncomfortable with the idea of being a ‘gimp’ but I have come to prefer the word to ‘disabled’. However, I think it is unlikely that ‘gimp’ will enter into common usage in the English language.
Let’s face it, saying ‘there is a physical part of me that deviates from what society defines narrowly as normal’ is a bit of a mouthful, and I have not been able to come up with a decent alternative to the word ‘disability’.
The “D” word, and to whom it applies, needs to be reconsidered. Let’s start that process now.