Disabilities and Identity – Spectrum, not Binary

Today I have a new piece on CNN about Kanye West. I build on yesterday’s blog post, expanding my argument that the Kanye West’s behavior is a magnified celebrity egotistical version of the kinds of skepticism and suspicion faced people with disabilities all the time. In the piece, I write:

Reaction to this incident throughout social media and in numerous publications was swift and condemnatory. West, in return, lashed out at the media. But in fact, although West’s celebrity magnifies the story, the bigger issue here is that his demand that his fans prove their disability is entirely typical.

Every day, in every context, people with disabilities get challenged to prove how disabled they are. This constant questioning isolates people with disabilities, increases stress and shame, and can lead directly to verbal or even physical abuse

I finish the piece with these thoughts:

Thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act, to claim disability is to ask for reasonable accommodation — accessible buildings, more time on tests, audible formats for books, Social Security disability payments, and more. Too many people seem to regard the request to accommodate as a burden and meet such requests with suspicion. The not-disabled exercise their privilege by demanding that people prove their disabilities; then, all too often, proof just generates pity, not understanding or inclusion.

By demanding everyone rise, by calling out the disabled members of his audience even as he grudgingly tolerated their inability to stand, West was being totally normal. If you think what he did was wrong, remember that the next time you are tempted to stare down someone walking from a handicapped spot at the grocery store. Remember that the next time someone managing pain can’t make it into work. Remember that the next time a student needs a little more time on a test.

One key takeaway from the piece, I hope, is the understanding the disability is not a binary. People are not either perfectly disabled or perfectly abled. Rather, we are all at the most temporarily abled, moving in and sometimes out of states of disability throughout our lives, or even just in a single day as we expend whatever strength we have and then need accommodations.’

I like to think about disability, especially physical disability, as overlapping spectrum that people might move along it as conditions change or just when they’ve used up all their spoons (read about the “But You Don’t Look Sick” spoon theory here, it’s a useful analogy). It’s more complicated for intellectual/development disability because one doesn’t want to normalize “typical,” but that’s a topic for another post.

That’s not how our culture sees it. That’s not how Kanye West sees it. For them, you are either disabled or not. You can’t need accommodations just some of the time, in such a perspective.

But that’s not how disability actually works. And everyone who has ever been sick or had an operation knows this. Disability works in many ways. An inclusive society accepts all of these ways and tries to build an accessible world, for whoever, whenever, under whatever circumstances.

2 Replies to “Disabilities and Identity – Spectrum, not Binary”

  1. deefreddy says:

    It's more complicated for intellectual/development disability because one doesn't want to normalize "typical," but that's a topic for another post.

    I hope you will address this complication in a post. I want to see intellectual disability as a part of the spectrum do the human condition, but as you point out, normalizing it is problematic.

  2. David Perry says:

    Yes, yes, yes!

    That's another problem: There's disability as body function, which is mostly what I was talking about in this post. But I come at this from the ID/DD world usually when I talk about disability, which is an entirely different set of considerations, as you point out.

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