Disability is Not One Size Fits All

Posted: June 24, 2014 in Disability

One thing I really, really hate out of the fitness world is the “what’s your excuse?” memes.

There are a lot of things wrong with this message. One I think, right off the bat, is the idea that one needs an “excuse”. As if the only correct body (because frankly, this message is usually associated with a particular look rather than a particular activity) is a super toned one, and having any other body needs an excuse for failing to have the right body type. Even if you shift the focus to activities it still is problematic to suggest people need an excuse for not engaging in any particular activity. Why does one need an excuse to expend their energy elsewhere?

They also serve to boost up those sharing it rather than help to support others. I think Molly Galbraith does a good job at explaining how the statement “what’s your excuse?”  isn’t motivating. As she points out these tend to be inspiring to people who are already like those saying it, whereas to those who are not the message is not really uplifting, empowering, or saying you can do it, so much as just shaming for not doing it.

This isn’t about that “what’s your excuse?” image though, but rather I’ve noticed recently several folks with certain disabilities using this “what’s your excuse” message, and it really annoys me because it suggests that disabilities are either one size fits all, or can be hierarchically ranked with their disability as the worst imaginable.

Interestingly I’ve yet to see this come from any person with a disability that causes severe fatigue. Rather, thus far, I’ve seen it from people who’ve had some sort of terrible injury, broken bones, had to have pins put in, and still workout and are in great shape.

And honestly, I have no idea what that’s like! I’ve never so much as broken a bone in my life. That kind of injury and recovery and the long term effects of it? Totally foreign to me!

But I do know what it’s like to live with chronic pain and I do know what extreme fatigue is like. I know what it means to have to ration your spoons. (Spoon theory for those unfamiliar.)

Yeah, I know that feeling! Been there.

Which is the point though. I know my experience with disabilities. And my experience has also been that my fatigue is typically far more limiting, particularly in terms of physical activity, than my pain. But my experience with disabilities is not a universal one.

Disabilities are not one size fits all, nor are they even easily categorized by what is worse.  Because what is “worse” really depends on the context of what you are talking about. For the most part different disabilities are just different. Accommodations for someone who is deaf are going to be very different than for someone who is blind- it’s not necessarily that one is worse or harder than the other, but they are different.

It also reminds me of a guy I dated in college, a little person who uses a wheelchair- also a pretty awesome disabilities advocate. At the time I dated him I actually didn’t identify at all as a person with disabilities. I’ve had chronic, severe migraines since I was about 10 which some consider a disability, but I never used to think of it that way. But most of my health issues are much more recent. It was actually right around when me and him dated that I developed Meniere’s Disease- but it wasn’t for several more years before it was diagnosed as such. At the time we dated, I just knew I kept getting severe vertigo and up to that point doctors didn’t know why (actually around that time they thought it might be MS). Due to that, and it coming on very suddenly without warning, I was trying not to drive because I couldn’t drive with the vertigo and I had no way of knowing if I would have an attack while driving. I remember once he made a comment about disability being relative and how he was able to drive and I wasn’t at the time, so in that context of driving I was more disabled than him. Certainly if you looked at the two of us, I’m sure you would consider him more disabled, particularly given I don’t look like I have disabilities at all actually. Yet as he pointed out, within certain context my health was more disabling. In other context though, it would be different- for example at the same time I lived in an apartment that could only be accessed by stairs, which would not be an option for someone who uses a wheelchair. Disability is very context specific.

So this whole idea that if one has a disability and they can do x then everyone else must be able to as well is just total crap! It’s not even a matter of worse or better, because so much of it is context or activity specific. Two different disabilities will have different limitations/accessibility needs.

Hell, different disabilities will impact how we see having disabilities, or if we even identify it as a disability. I often think that “people with disabilities” is such a wide category that it becomes very hard to make much of any generalizations across that group.

There a physical disabilities, mental disabilities, developmental disabilities, and physical disabilities can be visible or invisible, sometimes conditions are lifelong, other times it’s possible to move out of being disabled after successful treatment, some folks were born with disabilities, others of us developed them later in life, and for some symptoms can flare and dissipate at times (this is true for me certainly, working out would not be an option at all if everyday were like my worst days).

“Disability” is not the uniform grouping people often like to make it out to be.  So my ability, or another person’s ability to do certain things, with our respective disabilities does not justify suggesting that there are no legitimate barriers to doing that thing.


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