Being disabled: a matter of context

This article is my contribution to the Blogging Against Disablism Day 2012, an initiative from The Goldfish. Ok, it was on May 1st, but, uh, as the saying goes, better late than never.

As soon as you work in the accessibility field, you get acquainted with the words “disability” and “impairment” – yet, one can easily mistake them for each other. I will never explain the appropriate uses of words and expressions about disability, as brilliantly and thoroughly as The Goldfish did in this article: “The language of disability”. Still, I would like to tell you about my own insight and experience about what those words actually describe, and why they should not be lightly used. For that matter, I’ll tell you a true tale about how anyone can feel disabled, at some point.

Impairment is a limitation of one’s physical, mental or sensory capacities. It can be either temporary or definitive. It can result from the individual’s characteristics, or from their environment (for instance, poor light conditions create a situation similar to a visual impairment – it’s just a matter of threshold). It’s an absolute thing: whatever you are currently doing, it’s there.

In contrast, a disability is relative. It describes a higher difficulty to achieve something, when compared to how other people perform. It can be the result of impairments, but not necessarily. It can be the exclusive effect of the environment, which impacts negatively on the person’s ability to achieve a given task. All combinations are possible: impairments that incur disabilities, impairments that incur no disability at all, and disabilities happening with no impairment at all.

For instance, in total obscurity, sightless people are not disadvantaged, it could be even argued that being used to it, somehow, they’ll do better than sighted people in the same situation. One can become the greatest basketball player ever, in video games, while not being able to stand. Although the impairment is obvious, it does not result in a disability, from a gaming point of view.

When I was still a student (waaaaaay too long ago), as many of my peers, as part of my studies I had to do an internship in the company of my choice – just to have a glimpse of what it means to work for real, with real people doing real things. This is how I found myself assembling hundreds of drawers in a hospital furniture manufacture, armed with a glue dispenser and an electric screwdriver. To avoid any major industrial catastrophe, I was monitored by a guy of my age – let’s call him Mike. Assembling drawers was Mike’s job and responsibility, and although he appeared to be a very nice guy, he took this seriously. He had to.

Mike was a pro, it was obvious. Quick, sharp, productive. The best proof of it was his impressive piles of drawers perfectly aligned, especially compared to my uneven stacks of painfully assembled wanna-be drawers. At some point I realized that half of my drawers where mounted the wrong way, and we had to quickly unglue them and fix my mess – oops. Mike was also profoundly deaf, and since he had to explain me the job, and manage me and my clumsiness, it had some significance. We had to adapt. He mainly used gestures to that end, showing me things with great emphasis when needed. Occasionally he used a small notepad tied to his neck, scribbling notes at lightning speed. Although I assume he was able to speak, obviously he wasn’t too comfortable with it, and did it only sparsely.

Anyone who’s been into a factory or workshop where wood is manufactured knows how noisy it is: saws, drills, planes, routers, cutters, some of those as large as school buses, all of them concur to build a deafening atmosphere – precisely. Earplugs were mandatory, fortunately. Those small pieces of foam were very welcome, although they did not seem to feel that way in my ear ducts. They kept popping out, all day long, no matter how deep I tucked them in. Moreover, they provoked itches, less painful though than the headaches that punctuated my days. Mike, being a good sport, used to smile and shrug expressively, pointing at his own ears, letting me know that he was fine, no earplugs issues for him.

Communication too wasn’t easy for me. He made quick and explicit gestures; mine made me feel goofy and clumsy – and patches of glue all over my fingers, hands, and –uh– face, certainly didn’t help. He wrote blazingly quickly on his notepad, always at hand, but it appeared way too inconvenient for me, so I gave up quickly. Of course, speaking was of no use, apart from expressing my frustration and despair.

In our micro-world, bordered by fresh glue-smelling drawers, the disabled guy was me, not him.

Outside of the factory, at night, we used to simply shake hands, nodding knowingly (knowing what, exactly? This remains to be told). I knew, at least, that he was entering a merciless world, where his impairment would make him a disabled person.

Each time I need to sort out which word means what, I summon this memory. I hope this tale will help you too.

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