I Am Disabled, Hear Me Roar
“Are you disabled?” Have you been asked this question on forms, applications, or in person? If so, how do you answer?
Whenever I’ve been asked this question, it’s always thrown me for a loop. It’s so much easier to answer the questions “Do you have a disease?” or “Do you have a chronic health condition?” I can answer “yes” to those questions without missing a beat. However, when it comes to the term “disabled” I always give pause. First, there are the negative implications of a word that solely implies inability. Even when putting semantics aside, the question remains difficult for me to answer. I think most people probably associate the word “disabled” with wheelchairs, walkers, canes, or prosthetics. We immediately think of the universal blue image of a stick figure in a wheelchair, not of the huge spectrum of disabilities, including those that are invisible. While some people with Rheumatoid Arthritis do require mobility aids, I have been fortunate to require them on only rare occasions. I can walk on my own, and the vast majority of the time I can do so without a limp. Therefore, part of me feels like a poser to claim the term “disabled.” While some people have disabilities that affect them day in and day out, my condition fluctuates. I do have bad days that keep me in bed with ice packs or heating pads and painkillers, but I also have good days where my RA is an afterthought, and I don’t require any accommodations to make it through an active day. Therefore, the checkbox that I always wish accompanied the question “Are you disabled?” is “Sometimes.”
Ordinarily, it doesn’t matter whether I think of RA as my “disability.” It doesn’t matter what I call it; it just is. The occasions when I’ve had to label myself have been few and far between, and generally even when the question “Are you disabled?” is on a form or application, answering it is optional. Luckily, my “yes” or “no” generally hasn’t had many personal ramifications. However, I did find myself in one situation where being able to label myself as “disabled” made all the difference in the world. I was assigned a physically-taxing duty at work, and when I requested the use of an accommodation that would enable me to carry out the duty, my request was denied. I was told, “This is part of the job, and we need someone who can do the job.” I was crushed, but I also knew that along with the “disabled” label comes rights and legal protection, and I was prepared to take a stand.
Enter the Americans With Disabilities Act [ADA].1 Passed in 1990 and later amended in 2008 to broaden the interpretation of the original law, the ADA defines disability for us, making whatever definition I or anyone else may come up with legally irrelevant in the United States. The ADA specifies that the term “disability” applies to an individual who has “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities,” and that “an impairment that is episodic or in remission is a disability if it would substantially limit a major life activity when active.” (The full ADA definition is longer, but these are the portions that pertain to my RA.) By those standards, I most definitely have a disability.
Armed with the ADA and documentation from my rheumatologist substantiating my disabled status, I was able to utilize the accommodations I required. Had this same situation happened 30 years ago I would have been at the mercy of my employer, and could well have lost my job. However, in our current day the phrase “violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act” carries a lot of weight with HR departments (or at least with the ones who know what they’re doing). I am so grateful to all those brave individuals who worked tirelessly to get the ADA passed, and who have since had the courage and fortitude to pursue legal action when their rights under the ADA were violated. It is because of these court cases that the 2008 amendments, which strengthen the ADA, were made into law. When employers are unable to summon the compassion, creativity, or common sense to allow a person with a disability to perform a job in a slightly different way to achieve the exact same results, the ADA is there for us (in addition to many other applications of this important law). People may look upon individuals with disabilities with pity, yet there is enormous strength in this particular collective, and it is the power of "the disabled" that enables me to say, “I have a disability, and I am able.”
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