“Are you a person with a disability?” I was asked this question just the other day. The person asking wasn’t trying to be rude. The question was being asked for census reporting reasons. However, it was a difficult question for me to answer.
I know that I am a person with a chronic illness, but does that also make me a person with a disability? I have had rheumatoid arthritis most of my life. Those that know me can see it right away in my “gimpy hands” or my occasional “limpy walk”. There was a period of time when the disease was invisible to everyone but me. There were no visible deformities in the early years. However, 35 years later is another story. The internal battle that my body wages against itself has left the debris visible to the world.
However, I have a resistance to calling myself disabled. I’m not sure why, especially when I have spent my post school life advocating and working on behalf of people with all sorts of disabilities. It’s not that I view people with disabilities differently from me. The difficulty is with the word itself.
Eligibility for most benefits is limited to persons with disabilities. The government has its own definition of what disabled means. I get that there has to be a definition, some way of identifying whether the criteria has been met. The problem I think is that the word becomes a label that then describes the person and becomes a part of their identity. Sometimes, it takes on so much importance that it clouds the other parts of the person’s being. “She is disabled” or “He has a disability” becomes more memorable than “She is a good listener” or “He knows how to play a musical instrument.”
So maybe that is why I don’t like to use the word to describe me. I want the diagnosis to have no more importance than the color of my hair, eyes or skin. I want people to hear me, to see me, and judge me based on the total me, not a label. I like to think that we all have that in common.