What is disability?

I made it to my first Aspergers Women group tonight.  It was great to meet people I felt instantly comfortable with.  One comment that was made tonight, reminded me of something that was on my mind earlier this week.  That is… what is “disability”?

According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, “disability” is defined as:

– a condition (such as an illness or an injury) that damages or limits a person’s physical or mental abilities

– the condition of being unable to do things in the normal way : the condition of being disabled

But what then counts as a disability?

I first thought of this topic a few days ago when someone in a online group I’m in was really hurt that a family member called her post natal depression, a “disability”.  Is PND a disability?

Tonight it came up when someone mentioned that they prefer to called autistic spectrum disorder “autistic spectrum condition”.  Is autism a disorder or a condition?  either way… is it a “disability”?

I know according to general society, having depression or autism is automatically labelled a disability.  But are they really a disability?  Or is it just another way that society stigmatises people with mental illnesses or developmental disorders.  Are they even disorders? or just a different way of thinking?

I think the answer lies within the first half of the definition of disability – a condition that limits or damages a person’s abilities.  But I would argue that the second half of the definition is actually wrong – why is being unable to do things in the “normal” way a disability? what is “normal” anyway?

Normal refers to the “norm” – or the way most people do something.  But who has a right to say that “normal” is best?  If everyone did everything the same way – the “normal” way – we wouldn’t have any of the wonderful scientific discoveries that our society relies on.  It is only when someone say “I can do things a different way” that a better way is found.

So is autistic spectrum disorder a disability?  I would say a resounding NO!  After hearing the term again tonight, I think autistic spectrum condition is a much better description.  Much as I hate the term “suffering” from autism.  Are people with ASD/ASC suffering?

I’m not saying some don’t.  Some sadly suffer a lot.  But is their suffering because of their condition?  Or rather is their suffering because of how society treats them?

For some, yes autism can be a disability – where it limits the ability of someone to do something they would like to do. But no one has the right to assume that everyone with autism is “disabled”.  I personally don’t consider myself disabled by autism.  I have a lot of disabilities – physical health problems limit my ability and stop me from achieving things I would have liked to do in life, PTSD, depression, anxiety have temporarily or permanently limited me from doing things I would have liked to do in life, but I must say that stigma and judgmental people have put far more limits on me than anything my mind and body has limited me from doing.

But autism?  It has never prevented from me doing anything I’d like to.  It effects who I am, yes.  It makes me different from the norm (dare I say, it makes me “not normal”?) but I don’t care.  I love being different.  One of my favourite ways to describe myself is I’m not another lemming.  That’s even a title I considered for this blog (before sadly discovering it was taken).  For those who don’t know what a lemming is, “Lemmings” is a computer game where the player control “lemmings” who just blindly follow instructions. They will follow the crowd and do not think for themselves.  If you direct them off a cliff, they will all just jump off a cliff one after another.

Sadly I see an ever increasing drive in society for people to be “lemmings” or “sheeple” – people who follow whatever the crowd believes and do not think for themselves.  And a lot of people with autistic spectrum condition will never be like that.  We don’t fit in, we are not “normal” but why should we be? Why is thinking outside the box considered a disability?  Shouldn’t diversity be celebrated?

And to answer the question, is post natal depression a disability.  That one I have a little more mixed feelings about.  I think maybe the mum who raised the issue could be right – maybe it’s not an automatic disability.  Perhaps my judgment on that one is clouded by having worked in mental health and having been in hospital and gone to support groups etc, where the people there are often very disabled by their mental illnesses, but maybe having a mental illness isn’t automatically a disability.

That’s not to say it can’t be.  Many, perhaps most, people with depression are disabled by their condition either temporary or permanently.  I know for me when I am having a depressive episode, it is disabling.  But maybe having major depression is not overall a disability – I wouldn’t be the person I am today without it, and I have gained so much from my experiences with it. I would still say it’s a disability for me.  But maybe it isn’t for others, and I have no right to tell them a condition they have is a “disability”.

So what is a disability?  I think that is something no one person can answer for another.  What one person finds disabling, might be beneficial for someone else.

Ultimately the one thing I do know, is that there is no such thing as a “disabled person”.  Everyone has things they can do and things they cannot do.  We all have limits – “disabilities” if you wish to call them that.  But we all have abilities!  We all have gifts and talents, we all have something to contribute to the world.

No one is “disabled” – we are all just simply “differently abled”.


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