Why I tell people that becoming disabled radicalised me
Accepting my vulnerability and need of other people was an important step in my progress
Becoming disabled taught me that none of us are going to make it on our own. Illustration: iStock
A question has been clanging around in the back of my head recently. What actually is disability? I talk and I write about the concept so often, but I don’t know if I have ever comprehensively defined the term as I have come to use it.
And I think that if we take the time to look at how this concept is defined, we may be able to get at some hard-to-reach truths about life, disabled and otherwise.
This is, of course, a definitional discussion that has been going on for a while in disability-related fields of academia. I have read a lot of this work, but I haven’t read exponentially more of it. So please take everything I say here with a large handful of salt; I am making my definitions based on personal use and experience of the terms.
Broadly speaking, you can define disability under either the “medical model” or the “social model” of disability. The former is the way all of us (unless you come from a particularly progressive home) grew up thinking about disability. This defines a disabled person as a person who has some kind of malady, an illness or injury, that marks them as, in some way, divergent from the normal and the healthy. The problems with this line of thinking, both philosophically (“healthy” is a term that stands up to very little scrutiny) and ethically, are hopefully pretty clear.
The social model is, therefore, the kind of definition that’s used by the kinds of writers that have written for Platform, myself included. Under this paradigm, the “problem” is not with the individual disabled person. It is instead with the society we live in. Basically, this is the proposition that it isn’t my fault that I can’t come to your house for dinner, it’s our society’s fault for not mandating the construction of homes without massive steps right under the front door.
In my experience, and in the experience of my friends, this theory is liberation. It frees us from self-blame and channels our powers into the fight for systemic change. But maybe we can get a little bit more radical than that?
Because if I was to define what being disabled was from my direct experience, I would say that to be disabled is to have needs: the need for a wheelchair to move, for a ramp to get into the supermarket or for a medical card to pay for my medication.
To need help.
And, of course, this definition has a major flaw. Because doesn’t everyone have needs? Doesn’t everyone need help?
Well, maybe this isn’t as much of a problem as it appears to be.
Modern leftists, myself included, are very wary of universalist sentiments; the “I don’t see colour” brand of anti-prejudice. Because the subtext of statements such as that is often a kind of “Why are you all making such a big deal about this?”
Although, we should never forget that our definitions, the different boxes we put each other in, were built by people. They are very real, but they are not eternal or transcendent. And what was built can be broken.
I am not put in the category “disabled” because I have needs. I am in this category because under our current system, my needs are considered “special”. My needs are regarded as extra – something we’ll get around to if we have the resources. But we don’t have to live under this system.
One of the things I’ve had to work on accepting is my vulnerability. Like a lot of people, especially people in my demographic, I have a desire to be as independent and self-reliant as I can. I think I grew up wanting to be someone who can survive and thrive off of their own strength.
But for better or worse, that’s not the kind of animal I am. That kind of radical independence isn’t an option for me. But is it an option for anybody?
We are not solitary creatures. We need each other and other people need us. We build on each other’s work and each other’s strengths and look out for each other’s vulnerabilities.
This is what I mean when I tell people that becoming disabled radicalised me.
Because becoming disabled taught me that none of us are going to make it on our own.
Platform Series: Ferdia MacAonghusa
1) How’d you like to be pushed around?
2) These are not my best days
3) Do something positive for the disabled
4) Our disabled bodies are different
5) Heard about the fella in a wheelchair?
6) I’m not bad for experiencing depression
7) I’ve finally found a way to be free
8) How about a job?
9) A defence of identity politics
10) Becoming disabled radicalised me