Post No.: 0287
People who are born physically and/or mentally disabled can be perfectly satisfied about the way they are in an intrinsic sense, but only have a disability relative to the human-built environment and/or culture they’re in, such as an environment that makes it difficult for a wheelchair user to travel around, or an environment that discriminates against them for no good reason.
It’s like people who are relatively short in height or of a different skin colour to the surrounding ethnic majority, for instance, don’t usually feel like they have a problem about the way they are when they’re just getting on with their own lives, but some other people may presume they do. This means that it only speaks the truth of the people doing the judging and not the people being judged. (It might speak of their own prejudices or even their own projected insecurities?)
Or it’s like, if you are a two-armed-and-two-legged human being, you might consider yourself as not being born physically disabled, but a four-armed-and-four-legged extraterrestrial species with every sense you have plus a natural ability to also detect magnetic fields might consider you – or an offspring of their own who only has two arms and two legs and no natural ability to detect magnetic fields – as disabled. Knowing this, do you now feel deformed, inferior and less functional? Probably not.
So it can be the symptom of a lack of imagination to assume that, for instance, people who have fewer than two arms and two legs inherently or inevitably feel or are inferior. Chances are they only feel that way if they do because of being bullied to feel that way or for being discriminated against, and it’s therefore their mental health that’s more vulnerable than their physical body. If they lived in a more tolerant community then they’d probably feel totally okay.
Yes, they may face physical difficulties relative to those with two arms and two legs but we all face physical limitations – for example, even the tallest person ever couldn’t stretch to reach some heights and the smallest person ever couldn’t squeeze into some spaces; and most people inbetween those sizes don’t feel intrinsically physically disabled for not being able to do some of the things these people can, and most people inbetween those sizes don’t mentally feel unhappy with the way they are either because they’re not being bullied or discriminated against for their ‘boringly average size’. Small garden spiders can walk on the ceiling, medium garden spiders can walk on the walls, large garden spiders can only walk on the ground – every size has its pros and cons. Dark and light skin colours have their pros and cons too.
Now there’s often a difference to one’s feelings (but not necessarily one’s being) if one was born ‘disabled’ and knew no different, compared to if one was born ‘normal’ then during some time in one’s life incurred a major existential disruption i.e. a loss, such as losing one or more of the limbs one once had (and often in a sudden, unexpected and traumatic way too). Such people in the latter category can feel depressed, at least for a while before they adapt (hence it’s psychologically not always ‘better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all’ in the case of losing a loved one or other things). Such losses or major upheavals in one’s life, that negatively affect one’s projected outlook and future plans, tend to cause a massive trauma to a person, at least for a while, even though most people will eventually adapt to their new state. Well at some point their new state won’t bother their ‘experiencing self’ in a day-to-day sense if they stay mentally mindful and present, but it may still bother their ‘remembering self’ if they reminisce and constantly compare their current situation to their old situation. (I’m a dog who’s missing part of my tail so I guess that makes me partially disabled, but I’ve adapted and I’m fine about it now – woof woof!) Read Post No.: 0230 to learn the difference between the ‘experiencing self’ and ‘remembering self’.
What is ‘normal’ or therefore ‘disabled’? Most people don’t consider myopia a disability but that’s only because socially, culturally, materially, medically and technologically (i.e. environmentally) people can get hold of relatively accessible corrective lenses or even surgery to allow them to function just fine in this modern world. But if we lived in ancestral hunter-gatherer times then myopia may have been fatal, hence how ‘disabled’ or impaired someone is can only be determined in relation to the current environment they’re in (e.g. a culture of stigma or a culture of charitable, medical and technological investment in solving a particular health problem?)
Many people are fussy or phobic about eating something but this doesn’t manifest as a problem because they personally live in an environment full of alternative options so that they won’t starve. Therefore, likewise and logically, ‘normalcy’ is not an inherent or objective but relational property of minds and bodies. ‘Normal’ in one context may not be in another. For instance, lots of people in the ‘developed’ world cannot walk for 10 miles in one stint without struggling, but in other times and/or places this could’ve been or could be considered a disability, or at least a bad fit between an individual body and a particular environment.
Is not being able to read a map or perform moderately challenging arithmetic a disability? It’s certainly a ‘diminished ability’, but fortunately for such people, technology again comes to their rescue (or is technology arguably a contributor to their ‘diminished ability’ in the first place because people are being brought up relying on satellite navigation and calculators?!) Is not being able to use a computer an impairment in today’s world? Is being too large a disability because one cannot fit into or onto many sorts of designed and built human spaces comfortably? Is being considered ‘physically ugly’ a disability because this can culturally shut some opportunities out for some people? Now this is not to say that disability is just a made-up construct – disability is real and definable. It’s to say that how it is determined is context-dependent; just like ‘hot’ or ‘cold’ are relative properties and depend on the context, but it doesn’t make temperature a made-up thing nor states of ‘too hot’ or ‘too cold’ a load of nonsense.
So short-sightedness (or indeed long-sightedness and/or astigmatism), which lots of people in this world have, is not considered a disability, or even a cause for suffering, because of the fortunate state of current technologies (glasses, contact lenses, surgery, accessibility options on devices), along with the lack of stigma against people with the condition, even though such people would likely not have survived for long if they were living in the wilder environments of yesterday or today without the technology. Therefore why not work towards technologies and reducing the cultural stigma for all other survival-threatening and not-as-bad conditions too? It could be argued that short-sightedness wouldn’t be so prevalent if it weren’t for modern environments and lifestyles, yet this could also be true of some mental conditions in some cases too (e.g. anorexia, body dysmorphia, chronic stress, depression, anxiety, PTSD).
If it weren’t for clothes and shoes, most people would suffer in their present environments. Different people have different levels of furry hirsuteness on their heads and bodies but we don’t call ‘baldness’ or ‘hairlessness’ a disability because we have clothing technologies to compensate for their cold spots. Hence if we can create the technologies to raise everybody’s physical and mental abilities then theoretically there’ll be no such thing as a ‘disability’. One day, if you lose a limb then you could just get an artificial one attached that functions just as well as (or possibly even better than) the one you had (like the mechno-arms of Anakin and Luke Skywalker!) – just like simply donning a pair of glasses once your eyesight goes blurry!
The advance of artificial limb technologies (partly due to cases of soldiers and civilians losing limbs during conflicts) also demonstrates that, when we care about the victims, we can make incredible technological progress, which might even one day benefit ‘fully-able’ people too (e.g. telerobotics, powered exoskeletons). ‘Disability’ could therefore one day be entirely a cultural thing (i.e. about not being able to afford a technology, like some people in the world today still cannot afford glasses) rather than a permanent or personal thing. Everyone can still exercise their own personal choices to use these technologies or not, or which ones, so it’s not about forcing everyone to be the same – it’s about levelling everyone’s fluffy opportunities.
Building skyscrapers with no elevators or wheelchair ramps would be a social choice, not a natural outcome (because skyscrapers are designed by humans rather than are natural things) – so how disabling a disability is, in practice, depends highly on our social choices, how we design our world, rather than on the pure, natural outcomes of a disabled person. We can design a world that’s comfortable for ‘fully-able’ people as a choice, and we can design a world that’s also comfortable for disabled or ‘disabled’ people of all kinds too – if only we choose to.
This all means that interventions can not only be medical on the individual (fixing the individual) but could also, or even instead, be changes to the physical environment and/or culture around such individuals (fixing the environment). One can change/fix the person, change/fix the environment, or do both. (A loose analogy is that it could be said that some women shouldn’t dress so provocatively, but it could also be said that men just shouldn’t be so lecherous against women at all. We could expect the victims to change, or expect the victims’ environment (everyone else in this case) to change; and we’d probably sensibly want the latter because of people’s negative rights to not be harassed by others.)
In some countries, the deaf community is a vibrant and accommodating one for its members (sometimes arguably to the detriment of any perceived defectors), so deafness isn’t relatively that bad a condition compared to, say, blindness. (Morbidly) obese people survive today due to medical and technological accommodations, and highlight how what’s considered ‘normal’ (in this case, a certain range of weight/size) can culturally shift over time. And it doesn’t matter if the causes of a disability/incapability are largely genetic or environmental too – for instance, Down syndrome is genetic but this doesn’t mean the social environment can’t accommodate people with Down syndrome better – in fact, as a result of social advancements rather than medical ones, more people with Down syndrome now live fuller and more independent lives and live for longer too. ‘Neurodiversity’ suggests that however someone is, they deserve our fullest respect as human, or otherwise sentient, beings.
This doesn’t exclude medical solutions to cure or treat people if possible, but offers alternative perspectives to search for possible solutions that could work, especially where medical or pharmaceutical interventions aren’t available or are unreliable. It’s not to say that environmental interventions might not also come with side-effects or costs, but medical or pharmaceutical interventions typically come with side-effects and are costly. So it’s not necessarily the case that environmental changes will cost more money to implement – some medical treatments and aftercare are expensive, and some social changes are cheap or even cost nothing (e.g. better personal education and eradicating the social stigma towards people who are considered ‘different’).
Woof! What do you think about how we should view the disabled or ‘disabled’ and how we could design the environment and create technologies for them, rather than demand that they fit into a world made just for everyone else or otherwise be ostracised or banished from society altogether? Please share with us your views by replying to the tweet linked to the Twitter comment button below.