To me, disability is not a monolith, nor is it a clear-cut binary of disabled and nondisabled. Disability is mutable and ever evolving. Disability is both apparent and non-apparent. Disability is pain, struggle, brilliance, abundance and joy.Disability rights activist and founder and director of the Disability Visibility Project
Note on disability language: At United Way we encourage dialog and centering the voices of folks most connected to the language we use. Our Diversity, Equity and Inclusion team is using both identity-first language (disabled person) and person-first language (person with a disability) in this piece and in the challenge because of our own internal dialogues, where our disabled staff and community expressed the importance of honoring the multiple ways each individual person with a disability has their own language to express themselves. You can read more about disability language in today’s resources.
When you hear the term “disability” what do you imagine? It would not be surprising if, for many of you, this term conjures an image of someone who requires support to move around or has a physical disability. But not all disabilities can be seen. Invisible disabilities are those that don’t manifest in ways that are immediately obvious to others yet can limit or challenge a person’s movements, senses or activities. This can include symptoms such as debilitating pain, fatigue, dizziness, cognitive dysfunctions, brain injuries, learning differences and mental health disorders, as well as hearing and vision impairments. And though not all people with an invisible disability identify this way or disclose this information, the advocacy group Disabled World estimates that roughly 10% of Americans have a condition that could be considered an invisible disability.
There are different lenses or models through which the world seeks to understand disability. And while seeking to understand, we must also consider the ways in which ableism is present. Ableism is a set of beliefs or practices that devalue and discriminate against people with disabilities; this reinforces the idea that people without disabilities are the default. This discrimination and prejudice is perpetuated by the medical model of disability, which views disability as a deficiency or abnormality and focuses on finding a “cure” or making a person more “normal.” Alternatively, the social model declares that disability is a natural human difference and that the most significant barrier for individuals with disabilities is not the disability itself but rather an environment that makes everyday life harder for some in comparison to others. The remedy is to change the way society is run and organized to remove barriers so everyone can participate on an equal basis.
Disability does not discriminate based on race, economic status, language, gender, sex or ethnicity. It can affect any person at any time, and studies show that a 20-year-old worker has a one-in-four chance of developing a disability before reaching retirement age. This week’s materials challenge you to consider the ways in which you view disability, and whether your perceptions — even if not intended — may cause harm to others.