What’s in a label? You are either disabled or not, right?
In some cases, yes, but disability, like life, is not always so clear. Is disability simply a physical state-of-being or a state-of-mind… and does the label matter?
A quick glance at the dictionary tells us that disability means, “crippled; injured; incapacitated.” We see someone in a wheelchair and we automatically think “disabled.” The comments in a previous post about handicapped parking privileges indicate that we don’t all agree on what constitutes a disability beyond the wheelchair.
In the case of workplace rights or social security disability benefits, the disabled label carries great weight.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) considers you to be disabled “if you have a have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.” You are covered under the ADA if you can perform the duties of your job with or without reasonable accommodation. If you can still work, it is important to become familiar with the ADA definition of disability in order to understand your rights on the job.
The Social Security Administration describes a person as being disabled if “you cannot do work that you did before; we decide that you cannot adjust to other work because of your medical condition(s); and your disability has lasted or is expected to last for at least one year or to result in death. This is a strict definition of disability.” This is crucial if you plan to apply for social security disability benefits, because it pays only for total disability, not partial or short-term disability. Sounds pretty clear cut.
In the case of relapsing/remitting multiple sclerosis, many of us live in an ever-changing reality, alternately able-bodied and disabled, defying a single label. Our disabilities, while severe enough to interfere with work and independence, are often invisible and may not qualify us for the disabled label in the case of ADA or social security disability benefits. We live in label limbo.
Beyond the legal reasons, the definition of a disability becomes more cloudy… and less important. How others label us and how we label ourselves is as individual as we are.
I’ve been told by some observers that I am disabled, but it’s not how I choose to describe myself. That’s because I still am fortunate enough to experience periods of remission from MS when physical restrictions of the disease are quite minor. At the same time, bouts of relapse that gain me admission back into the world of the disabled are never far from my thoughts.
Clearly, I have a disability, but it’s not so clear that I am disabled. I live in two worlds and claim residence in neither. The mind/body connection is a complicated one.
Is disability simply a physical state-of-being or a state-of-mind? Perhaps it is both; perhaps it is in the eye of the beholder; perhaps it is inconsequential beyond the legal ramifications. For now at least, I am content to remain unlabeled.
Writer Ann Pietrangelo embraces the concept of personal responsibility for health and wellness. As a multiple sclerosis patient, she combines a healthy lifestyle and education with modern medicine, and seeks to provide information and support to others. She is a regular contributor to Care2.com’s Reform Health Policy blog in Causes.