I am disabled. Here’s some of what I have realised over the last decade about that. I have been privileged to work with wise and committed colleagues and peers and I acknowledge all they taught me. Not coming from a background in disability policy, services or activism added a different perspective.
Disability is what happens when your needs don’t match the world as it is right now. It’s that simple, and that complex. We’ll delve into this together over coming weeks.
Disability combines personal experience and social process. It is the interaction between how the world functions and how people function.
It’s way too easy to focus only on the individual, rather than what surrounds them, constrains them, enables them. We each have our own stories, but there are also bigger forces at play. Most of that is missing from educational and media coverage.
Impairment of our personal abilities is natural. Some of it just comes with age. Our walk and memory might falter, our senses become less sharp, even as our wisdom deepens (if we’re lucky). Some of us were born this way. Or our lives changed through illness or accident. It’s mostly not something to be 'prevented' or 'rehabilitated'. Disabled people have always been part of human history and despite the fantasies of eugenicists we always will be.
Society’s understanding about disability continues to evolve -- yet it is consistently reported by disabled people as our single greatest barrier to work around. Impairment means a person may have difficulty doing some things in their daily life, like moving around, hearing, learning or socialising. Other barriers occur when our needs aren't taken into account.
People do whatever they can to adapt to their surroundings. We’ve all done that or seen it. But there are limits. It’s hard to magic-up smooth footpaths, larger print, or respectful service at the moment you need them. Taking your own wheelchair ramp or interpreter everywhere (just in case) isn’t practical. Putting up with poor assumptions and constantly being an unpaid teacher about disability is draining. Our parents and siblings and friends can experience that too.
Some needs are provided for without question because we've always done it, or society quietly regards them as ‘normal’, or because the ‘right’ sort of people are involved. For instance, senior business executives get dedicated personal support people but we ration those for disabled students. Making your own travel bookings is somehow a worse fate than missing the same chance at an education as your peers.
Some abnormalities are also irrationally applauded. Even though we no longer regularly run from savage predators, being freakishly fast can get you a medal. Being able to communicate with New Zealand’s rarest official language, not so much. Nothing fair or sensible about it. You can see why many disability activists take a human rights approach.
Rather than trying to cure or ‘fix’ each person, let’s just make sure the settings we share genuinely work for everyone. Then we can all live to our potential and play our part in our families, our society and our economy. Our world faces some great challenges that require cunning, cooperation and tenacity to overcome. Disabled people offer all of that, hard-won from daily experience. We are also your neighbours, your family, your future. Fellow citizens. Fellow humans.
What we each bring is worth adjusting for, like we do for others - without challenge, without pity and without begging.