Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

You are here

Still thinking about "What is Disability?"

ekoren's picture

In Kim Nielsen's A Disability History of the United States, Nielsen describes general indigenous beliefs about disability. One of the things Kim mentions is the idea that while "limitations shaped [a disabled indigenous person's] contributions" this same reality "was true of everyone else in the community as well" (Nielsen 3). I'm incredibly curious how this way of thinking, despite its colonial decline, fits into our previous in-class discussion on what qualifies someone as disabled. Particularly, I remember the class largely shying away from the language of "everyone is disabled in some way!", perhaps for its uncomfortable similarities to "color-blind" language in its erasure and invalidation of the genuine social isolation and oppression that comes with marginalization. I am also remembering a conversation I recently had with a family member about my sister, whose processing and sensory disorders and intellectual disabilities necessitate hands-on support in new and complex situations. This family member thanked me for my behavior on a recent vacation, which was full of new and complex situations, stating that my sister was a "burden". I was startled enough by this comment to skip feeling angry, and I tried to explain the absurdity of the remark by pointing out that my sister, a highly social and curious individual, constantly wants to go out and explore cities and hotels and meet new people, and I, a lazy and far less adventurous person, never do. Because we're close and rarely want to be apart during vacations, if anything, my frequent refusals to leave our hotel room burden her. (To be clear, I do not identify as disabled). 

I'm not sure how this anecdote fits into the conversation about criteria for disabledness or into the indigenous understanding of impairment that Nielsen described. Perhaps these two things point out a crucial distinction between impairment and disability. Perhaps I am merely being idealistic, attracted to the idea of a world in which everyone can acknowledge their own limitations without creating hierarchies of ability. How do we move towards disabled liberation from oppression while also remaining sensitive to a history and present marginalization? How do we avoid the erasure of euphemisms while also being sensitive to painful linguistic connotations? I am clearly still sorting out these competing thoughts and focuses, and I welcome any input!