LIVING WITH A DISABILITY BY JERRY LEVINSON
Often, the words that a person uses in talking with, or about you, affect not only your perception of the individual speaking them, but also your perception of yourself – your “self esteem.”
Anyone who knows me will tell you that I have a couple of screws loose, my elevator doesn’t go all the way to the top, and that I’m a few tacos short of a combo platter. I don’t believe these shortcomings resulted from my disability (MS); rather, I think it more likely that I was born this way. But whatever the reason for these inadequacies (that I believe are atypical for a man of my age and education), do they mean that I’m not “normal?”
A ROW IN THE UK OVER “NORMAL”
Recent remarks made by Iain Duncan Smith, Secretary of the United Kingdom’s Work and Pensions Department— the UK’s biggest public service department and the equivalent of our Department of Labor – have caused a firestorm (called a “row” by the Brits) among some of those in the British Employment Press.
As reported in the Disability World newsletter, during a recent parliamentary debate, Smith made some comments that more than a few of his critics thought suggested people with disabilities were abnormal. Specifically, while discussing employment rates and opening more job opportunities for the disabled, he cited the present number of those individuals with mental and physical “impairments,” now on the British employment rolls, and said, “I think the figure is now over 220,000… But the most important point is that we are looking to get that up to the level of normal, non-disabled people who are back in work.”
AN IMMEDIATE BACKLASH
Smith’s remarks drew an immediate avalanche of criticism that his remarks – and the welfare reforms advocated by his Work and Pensions Department – reflect a longstanding effort by his government to reduce the welfare rolls on the backs of disabled individuals who, it’s claimed, he’s categorized as an immoral bunch of people that either don’t want to work at all or who are certainly perceived as not putting enough effort into finding work. A number of Smith’s critics maintain that Britain’s government has in effect begun a “witch hunt,” not only targeting the country’s unemployed, but also its physically or mentally impaired. The critics argue the claimed witch hunt is ideologically driven, and occurs regardless of personal circumstances or of any understanding or acknowledgement of the efforts people with disabilities actually make to find work.
WHEN USE OF “NORMAL” IS OFFENSIVE
Paul Dodenhoff, one of Secretary Smith’s biggest critics, and author of the Disability World article, summed up when and why use of “normal” is derogatory as follows: “I’m not disabled but even I can see that the use of the term ‘normal’ in describing those without a disability could easily be taken to be offensive to those with a disability. While many disabled people may consider themselves to look or to behave a little different from the ‘average,’ all of those I’ve talked to still consider themselves to be ‘normal’ people. Normal people existing in a world where there is so much diversity in looks, behavior, fashion, likes and dislikes, that using the term ‘normal’ in order to separate the able-bodied from the disabled simply becomes a negative, derogatory way of signaling that there are certain groups within society that are not only perceived as being different, but who are perceived as essentially non-conformist, deviant or inferior. People who are in essence, detrimental to the workings of society in some way.”
CHOOSE YOUR WORDS CAREFULLY
Often, the words that a person uses in talking with, or about you, affect not only your perception of the individual speaking them, but also your perception of yourself – your “self esteem.” And a healthy self-esteem is, according to Inside MS, the magazine published by the National MS Society, a “vital part of living life to the fullest.” Most disabled individuals would agree with this assessment. Friendly, or positive words and discourse can often make your day, while words or conversation that a disabled person perceives to be derogatory, or as invoking pity, can ruin their week.•
Does My Disability Mean I’m not “Normal?”
LIVING WITH A DISABILITY
This column has a simple purpose, but a difficult goal: discuss issues that affect the lives, well being and state of mind of those who must live and cope with a disability and do so in a humorous way whenever possible. This isn’t an easy thing to do, since there’s certainly nothing funny or humorous about being disabled, or in the difficulties and obstacles that those with chronic disabilities encounter daily. However, I’ve personally found that humor has to a great extent helped me cope with my disability (I’ve had Multiple Sclerosis for 45 years and use a wheelchair), and I hope this column helps others in the disability community do so as well.