Redefining “Disability”

Julie Entwistle, MBA, BHSc (OT), BSc (Health / Gerontology)

I love the saying that we are all “temporarily able-bodied”.  How true.  Each one of us, at any time, is one situation, condition, virus, bacteria, accident, or even random event away from becoming disabled physically, emotionally, behaviorally or cognitively.  Or, really, many of us are already disabled – visibly or invisibly, and I truly believe the saying: “be kind to all you meet as everyone is fighting a hard battle” – Plato.

This definition of disability from Wikipedia speaks to how all-encompassing the word really is:

Disability is the consequence of an impairment that may be physical, cognitive, mental, sensory, emotional, developmental, or some combination of these. A disability may be present from birth, or occur during a person’s lifetime.

Disabilities is an umbrella term, covering impairments, activity limitations, and participation restrictions. An impairment is a problem in body function or structure; an activity limitation is a difficulty encountered by an individual in executing a task or action; while a participation restriction is a problem experienced by an individual in involvement in life situations. Thus, disability is a complex phenomenon, reflecting an interaction between features of a person’s body and features of the society in which he or she lives.

The last sentence is especially true.  A disability is an interaction of the person and their environment.  This is why I love being an Occupational Therapist.  While I do enjoy helping people to function better through therapy that improves physical, cognitive, behavioral or emotional abilities, I also take pride in tackling the environmental aspects of functional problems.  If we can’t change the person, we can try to change the environment in which they live, and the spaces in which they need to function.  This “holistic” view of disability is, in my opinion, one of the key facets of Occupational Therapy.

I wanted to celebrate this important day by listing some of my most favorite quotes about disability:

“The only disability in life is a bad attitude” – Scott Hamilton

“I choose to not place “DIS” in my ability” – Robert M. Hensel

“Just because a man lacks the use of his eyes doesn’t mean he lacks vision” – Stevie Wonder

“One’s dignity may be assaulted, vandalized and cruelly mocked, but cannot be taken away unless surrendered” – Michael J Fox

“We know that equality of individual ability never has existed and never will, but we do insist that equality of opportunity still must be sought” – Franklin D Roosevelt

“I am only one, but still I am one.  I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do something that I can do” – Helen Keller

So, consider that we are all vulnerable and only temporarily able-bodied.  We need to celebrate humanity – in all its forms, including the form that is “disability”.