“I’m a Pepper, Too”–or are You a Cucumber? The “We All Have Disabilities” Phenomenon

Hello, readers,

Happy June, and quick shout-out–happy birthday to my Nana, who turned eighty today. 🙂 Actually, that leads me to today’s post, because as we know, as we get older, our bodies may not cooperate as well as they used to. But the question is, does that mean that everyone has disabilities at that point? In fact, what constitutes “disability” at all?

We’ve discussed this before, from different angles and with different results (ex.: the rather disastrous post on obesity as disability from last March). However, we haven’t covered the often-ignored, but prevalent, differences between “disability,” “handicap,” and “impairment.” Most of us, including yours truly, use these terms interchangeably, and usually, no one is the wiser. Again, no one likes a hair-splitter in this politically correct world of ours. But sometimes, the interchangeable use of these three words can cause confusion or even hurt. For example, I have had many people, who I love, try to encourage me with these phrases and their variants:

“Everybody has a disability.”

“I don’t see you as disabled.” (Which I actually appreciate, since at least some people don’t focus in on that like a caffeinated camera).

“You could say I have a disability” (referring to, say, their glasses, their arthritis, their inability to organize a closet, their dislike of foods that burst apart in your mouth)

And though I usually smile and nod at these encouragements, because they are well-meant, there are times I (and, I think, any person with a documented disability) just wants to say, “Excuse me, but no. You may have an inconvenience, maybe even a handicap or impairment, but that doesn’t mean you’re necessarily ‘disabled’ or know how I feel/what I’m going through. You may grow in the same garden section, but that doesn’t make you a pepper. You might be a cucumber.”

So of course, you’re probably asking, what do you mean, and what’s with the vegetable analogies? (Check the archives for what I call the “I’m a Pepper, Too” syndrome, which occurs when people with disabilities are encouraged, or even allowed, to socialize only with other PWDs). In clarifying these terms, I’m not questioning anyone’s right to say they have things in their lives that hamper them, or what they want to do–their right to say, “I grow in this garden and am a vegetable.” But that person, who says, what’s the difference between cucumbers, peppers, and celery, needs a quick clarification lesson.

According to the pediatrics education division of Emory University’s website, the differences between the three definitions are as follows:

Impairment: “Any loss or abnormality of psychological, physiological, or anatomical function.”

Disability: “Any restriction or lack (resulting from an impairment, emphasis mine) of ability to perform an activity in the range considered normal for a human being” (leaving aside the question of “What the heck is ‘normal,’ again?”)

Handicap: “A disadvantage for a given individual that limits or prevents fulfillment of a role that is normal” (don’t get me started on which roles are normal for whom, how, when, or where)

The good folks at Emory provide examples that break this down further. I’ll use mine rather than theirs, since it’ll save some quoting and hopefully, give a more personal touch.

I have a form of CP called spastic CP (which, ironically when one considers the connotation, actually means my muscles are hypertonic, not loose and floppy; that’s ataxic). The impairment I experience is overly tight muscles, which means my ability to walk is hindered, as is my ability to use my hands (I can’t handwrite, button tiny buttons, tie shoes, or cut food with a knife). I also have a visual-spatial impairment which affects balance and visual activities, such as interacting with geometric figures or completing those math questions that say, how many triangles do you see in this (rather busy) figure?

The disability itself, or restrictions that result, might be, for example: my ability to walk with a “normal” gait or my ability to drive a car (which, for the reasons of impairments outlined above, I don’t, and won’t unless Google perfects their driver-less cars in the near future). Then again, this does hinge on the idea of what is considered “normal,” but for the sake of the post, let’s just say I do not have typical abilities in some areas due to the impairments CP causes.

However, with all that, I am only handicapped in certain situations by a disability that the impairments cause. For example, CP “handicaps” my ability to, say, play tennis or skydive, or even sign forms. It does not handicap my ability to read, or speak, or feed and groom myself. Whereas, for a person with, say, dyslexia, they may not be “handicapped” until called upon to read or spell something.

So, to wrap up: with all this in place, is it appropriate to say things like, “I have a disability, too” or “We all have disabilities” when in fact the person saying that does not have a medical diagnosis of an impairment that manifests itself as a disability? (And by the way, I’ve said those things too, so this also counts as self-examination). As with many things, I think this might come down to the terms we use. For example, if you wear glasses because your vision is not 20-20, yet can do any activity anyone else can, within normal range, as long as you wear your glasses, I don’t think it’s appropriate to say you have a “disability” because the glasses, in effect, eliminate the impairment you do have. Whereas, if you have arthritis, and it prevents you from completing certain activities within normal range, it would be appropriate to say that you are handicapped in certain areas because of the arthritis. It might even be appropriate to say the arthritis is “disabling.” But (and I’m new at this, so take this with a grain of salt, please), this is not true for every impairment in existence. Just because you are impaired in one or two specific areas does not necessarily mean you have a disability. After all, you could be considered “handicapped” in a chess tournament if you’d only played three games in your life. But that handicap would be improved upon or eliminated if you practiced your chess game. The same cannot be said for many disabilities. In other words, you may be green like a pepper, but you might actually be a celery stick or cucumber. And it can be helpful to everyone if we all think about which one we are, and use the appropriate terms.

That being said, there is nothing wrong with being a cucumber. In fact, they happen to be my favorite green food. 🙂

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