I Am Disabled, Hear Me Roar

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.”

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The RheumatoidArthritis.net team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.
View References
  1. Americans with Disabilities Act. Chapter 126: Equal Opportunity for Individuals with Disabilities. Section 12102. Available at: http://www.ada.gov/pubs/adastatute08.htm#12102. Accessed October 1, 2014.


View Comments (4)
  • Anita
    4 years ago

    This has always been a tough one for me. I work as a consultant/contractor, so I have to deal with such job paperwork as often as several times a year. Long ago, I decided I didn’t like the term “disabled” because in the computer industry where I work, the term means something that doesn’t function. I *do* function, albeit with a bit of assistance. I much prefer the term “handicapped”, since it seems to fit better. I can work, but can’t do physical labor and need assistance for some kinds of tasks, but I am still able to function and work in my chosen career.

    I’ve been lucky in that my work only requires me to sit at a computer most of the time. I’ve had to request a decent office chair and wrist rests on occasion, but haven’t needed any expensive accommodations.

    I’ve had handicapped parking since 1987 and always use it, even if I’m feeling decent when I first park. My RA can take a bad turn at any time, so there’s never a guarantee that I’ll be moving as freely when I’m done whatever I’m doing at the location where I parked. I use a cane most of the time now, so I at least am spared the kind of grief I used to get from healthy people who would see me parking in HC spots.

  • Melissa
    4 years ago

    Thank you for the reply. I am currently being treated by a rheumatologist and on several different meds for my RA.

  • Melissa
    4 years ago

    How does this work for people who are self employed? My husband and I, own our own business. I was diagnosed with RA almost 10 years ago. The last 2 years my RA has bocome pretty severe with limiting my ability to perform my job as needed. I feel like my husband is never home because he has to do both jobs when im not able to, and even when i am at work I am not physicaly able to do some of the things he needs my help with; due to loss of strength and deformation of some joints. I agree with you about feeling like a poser, i have a plaqard for parking, but only use it on really bad days, because of this. By really bad days, i mean one of my lower joints is swollen so bad i limp or i am already exhausted and or in pain and wont be able to finish my shopping because i wear out to quickly. I feel like i should be considered dissabled but im not sure what i should do about it. Any advice for the self employed or what i might be able to do?

  • Tamara Haag moderator author
    4 years ago

    Hi Melissa, I’m so sorry you are facing these challenges. I’m sure you are already exploring all medical options with your doctor and have already put whatever accommodations into place that might help you perform your work at home, and that’s not enough for you. There is always the option of applying for Social Security disability benefits, but that’s not always an easy process nor a sure thing. By the ADA standards you certainly would be considered as having a disability, but as the ADA functions to ensure that employers don’t discriminate against employees, and as you are your own employer, the ADA definition won’t matter too much for you. The Social Security Administration has a process for determining eligibility for disability benefits, and the only way to find out whether you might be eligible is to begin that process. I wish you all the best, and hope you can find some assistance.

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