Why do disabilities happen? It’s a fair question, and one I’d guess 90-100% of people have asked at least once. (If you haven’t, you will). We try to come up with answers. Religious faiths from Judaism, Christianity, and Islam to Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism have faith-based answers, although those are often partial and not disability-specific. The medical world can sometimes offer answers; for example, if a mother drinks or does drugs while pregnant, her baby may sustain an intellectual or physical disability as a direct result. Educators offer answers based on human diversity, population changes, environmental factors, and adaptability.
Everywhere we look, there are answers or theories as to why disabilities happen. Some disabilities get more attention than others these days; there are literally thousands of theories on autism alone. Ellen Siedman, the writer of a recent article on Parents Magazine website, reports having read countless articles on why disabilities happen in the space of one week.
The science and rhetoric behind all this will make your head spin. Now, correlation doesn’t always equal causation. Despite this truth, scientists, doctors, educators, clergy – practically any professional who draws breath – is eager and maybe desperate to know why disabilities happen. Just for the funzies, I’m going to list a few theories/causes for you now. Note that they will not be tied to any specific disability because if you can find a disability, you can probably find a proponent of some cause.
-Illness, infantile or otherwise (e.g., meningitis, high fevers, viruses, encephalitis)
-Alcohol and/or drug abuse
-Genetic risk factors
-Age or overall health of mother
-Dairy of any kind
-Too much exercise or not enough
-Multiple births (twins, triplets, etc.)
-Socioeconomic factors (some studies conclude children born in orphanages, the Third World, etc. have a higher chance of experiencing developmental delays)
-Abuse or neglect of child, often in infancy or toddlerhood
-Exposure to radiation from microwaves, computer screens, cell phones, tablets…oh, you get it already
-Use of certain household cleansers (bleach, Windex, etc.) or pesticides
And on and on it goes, ad nauseam.
I’m not going to tell anyone it’s wrong to ask “why.” “Why” is not only a valid question, but perhaps one of the most important we in the disability can ask. Even if there are no satisfactory answers, it’s sometimes necessary to ask why so we can heal. Speaking from personal experience, asking “why” releases a pressure valve on sadness, anger, frustration, confusion, or anything else disability might make you feel. Furthermore, if we never ask “why,” we’ll never fully progress in our understanding of disability and PWDs. If we never ask how disability came about, we’ll never ask how to treat the people with it. We’ll never question if we are doing right by our fellow people.
But obviously, a problem comes in when we focus too much on “why.” As Ellen Siedman put it, “I have a super awesome kid”–and that kid happens to have a disability. As his mother, Ellen wants to raise him as best she can, to have the best quality of life he can. And for her, that means at some point, asking “why” has got to stop. She’s got to move from “why” to “how.”
Note that “how” is a question, too. I believe the key to dealing with disability in our world is to keep asking questions. Never shut questions down (unless they’re the bigoted kind, but that kinda goes without saying). The thing to focus on is the kind of questions we ask. Whether you are a PWD yourself, the parent of one, the coworker of one…no matter who you are, you eventually must stop asking why it happened. Put away the questions, “Why does Amanda have CP? Why was Elliot born with Down Syndrome? I know Jamal has MS; what does that mean, what’s wrong with him, and how did it happen?”
Hyper-focusing on these questions will keep the focus on the disability, not the person. They reinforce the idea that PWDs have something “wrong” with them. They keep the focus on treatment and normalization, not living daily life. I propose instead we start asking how.
-How can we improve our attitudes toward disability?
-How can we be the best coworkers, friends, parents, and lovers to PWDs that we can?
-How can we teach ourselves to think outside the box?
-How can we participate in the therapeutic treatment of PWDs? How can we use what we learn, coupled with what they have learned, to improve quality of life?
-How can we recognize our mistakes when it comes to disability, and keep from repeating them? (I highly recommend investigating history; I’m in the middle of Kim E. Nielsen’s enlightening book A Disability History of the United States. I also recommend What We Have Done, a book that discusses the disability rights movement from the 1950s-1990s).
-How can we educate ourselves about more disabilities, even and especially those that seem foreign to us or are relatively new to the medical/scientific world?
-How can we embrace disability as a natural part of culture and diversity? How can we expand the freedoms of PWDs so it becomes as natural to see them working, marrying, birthing, raising, and living as it is to see a black, Jewish, LGBT, or Asian person? So that it becomes as natural to hear their voices as it is to hear a voice with a regional or international accent?