Saturday, January 18, 2014

The disABILITY Myth

I wrote this article a number of years ago ... before Blogging ... so, it's never been published much less shared. I hope you enjoy it ...

Several weeks ago, I had a serious car accident. My car was totaled and I suffered 3 broken ribs, a punctured lung, glass in my left hand and a couple of small fractures in the right.

This period of recuperation and loss of the mobility and freedom that having a car at one’s disposal provides, has none the less given me the time and opportunity to do some serious reflection and soul searching.

In particular, old, old memories and feelings of a loss of mobility and freedom that I had experienced in my early childhood surfaced. At the age of 7, I suffered a serious case of polio which initially left me paralyzed and then severely physically-
limited throughout my entire childhood.

I can clearly remember the sense of power and autonomy I finally felt when I got my driver’s license at age 17. All this somehow got me to thinking … and my creative juices started flowing … here’s what followed …

I wonder how many people know the origin of the word disabled. My friend Mr. Webster says that the prefix Dis- comes from Roman mythology and that Dis- is the god of the lower world; identified with the Greek God Pluto. It also refers to his realm; the lower world; Hades.

Dis-, as the prefix to literally hundreds of words, denotes separation, negation, or reversal. Further, it refers to cause to be the opposite of; deprive of; fail; cease; disallow; not; lack of; apart.

The word disable itself is defined as:

  • to make unable or unfit; cripple; incapacitate.
  • to make legally incapable; disqualify legally.

None of these definitions paint a very empowering picture, if you ask me.

I think I have always had a problem with the word dis-ABLE … despite the fact that in recent years, it seems to have become the “politically correct” word of choice used to refer to the more than 50 million Americans who experience and live with some type of physical or emotional challenge.

In the olden days, when I was a kid crippled was more commonly used … especially with regard to children. Without knowing why, hearing that word would make my skin crawl. I hated it !! Handicapped wasn’t much better. That one sent me into a tizzy, as well.

Again referring to my friend Mr. Webster, I wonder how many people know that the origin of the word handicapped comes from the phrase "hand in cap," which was a kind of lottery game in which the winners were penalized.

It then came to mean, a race or other competition in which difficulties are imposed on the superior contestants, or advantages given to the inferior, to make their chances of winning equal ... like in horse-racing or golf.

From there, it goes on to define the word as:

  • such a difficulty or advantage, hence
  • something that hampers a person; disadvantage; hindrance.

Don’t you think it’s curious, that while the word started off with the idea of trying to keep the chances of winning equal … somehow over time, it has evolved to mean only the disadvantage part?  

Years ago, when I was in college, I remember studying the power of words … the power of labels. Studies have been done repeatedly over the years indicating the power of a label to determine perception and action...on the part of others, as well as on the part of ourselves.

One study in particular had to do with teachers being told that their students with blue eyes had higher IQ's than their students with brown eyes. The results of the study indicated that not only did the teachers treat the blue-eyed students in a preferential way, but in the end analysis, the blue-eyed students obtained better grades than those labeled as less intelligent. Looks like a pretty powerful self-fulfilling prophecy to me!!

So from my personal vantage point, a label such as crippled, handicapped, or even the more politically correct dis-ABLED carries an incredible power of influence …

Consciously or even unconsciously, it's as if the individual absorbs the feelings of … less than … inability … lack of competency … lack of empowerment. As a result, not only does the individual have the challenge in the first place but to top it all off … they’ve got a black cloud over their heads to boot !!!

So what I'm trying to say is, that there's an incredible power to words … whether we believe it or not ... whether we pay attention to it or not. And I think it's critically important to realize how important it is to pay attention to the power of the words we use … and that others use.

What follows from all of this is that as long as someone considers themselves less than able … then that, indeed, is what they are.



No comments: