Friday, September 20, 2013

What's Wrong with Disability?

"What's wrong with you?" "Oh no, what happened?" are questions that I get more often now. From long time acquaintances, causal friends, complete strangers. They all seem ask when they notice it.

I started wearing a leg brace two years ago on my right leg due to my club feet. As a kid, I resisted leg braces. I hoped for the least intrusive looking so that others didn't notice them (clear plastic was my favorite). But at this point in my life, big metal bars on my shoes are fine as long as they help me. I was ready for the assistive device, but I haven't been ready for the questions.

Ironically, I feel I answer children much better than adults. But they first ask, "Why do you wear that?" I say "it helps me walk" and THEN they ask "What's wrong with you?" It's simply curiosity. The brace doesn't automatically invoke "What's wrong" like in an adult. The child is not steeped in the cultural bias that different is not “normal,” that it is bad or "wrong." To children I am happy to explain that all people are made differently and that while he/she may walk in sneakers, I need pieces of metal on my shoes to walk. I enjoy these conversations because it often helps to "normalizes" my disability - and others - for the child.

But with adults, I am often caught off guard by the question. I often deflect, defer or minimize the situation. I generally don't want to explain decades of a diagnosis that I have explained countless times before to everyone I meet. Instead, I should be able to have a conversation about language, differences and disability.

Nothing is "wrong" with me. Disability is natural. And by that, I mean: Disability is a natural part of the human experience. If you don't have one now, live long enough and you will. There have always been people with disabilities and there will always be people with disabilities.

What is “wrong” is referring to disability and differences as “wrong” or bad. It’s a term that I and countless others have heard all our lives and it hurts sometimes. It hurts children because they begin to believe that they’re broken. It hurts many adults, too, because they feel like outsiders always being quizzed and questioned as to their worth. It hurts our whole community because language is insinuating that a whole group of people are inherently unwanted, bad, and broken... "wrong." 

My legs simply work differently than yours. Different doesn't mean wrong. It's just not part of your non-disabled, majority view of "normal." I have a congenital disability and I happen to use an assistive device to help me walk. Do you have glasses? Similar concept. What if everyone ran up to you, pointed to your glasses and shouted, "Oh no! What's wrong with you?" How would that feel?

When you meet someone with a different hair color, religion, height, or skin color do you ask them “What’s wrong with you?” There are many differences in humans. So, please stop asking me "what's wrong" with me. 

- By Keith Hosey -