This past weekend, the College of San Mateo was incredibly fortunate to have hosted the 2014 U.S. Paralympics Track and Field National Championships. World-class athletes from all over the country were able to take in the wonderful views up at 1700 W. Hillsdale Blvd. and to compete on the college’s iconic blue track. Watching these athletes perform made me think about how it is we define ability and disability. Working at a disabilities nonprofit, I’m quite familiar with and sensitive to “person first terminology.”
Person first terminology is a common form of communication among the disability and culturally competent communities. Here, as the phrase suggests, we put the person before the assumed status. For example, we could identify someone as having a disability; not being disabled. Instead of saying “Brian is schizophrenic,” we would say, “Brian is a person with schizophrenia.” With person first terminology, we are not limiting someone’s identity to a single status; we are identifying only one component of their whole self. As a person, Brian may like hiking, going to the movies, reading and hanging out with friends. All of these activities contribute to what it is that makes Brian who he is. When we say “Brian is schizophrenic,” we are limiting him to only that one aspect of his total identity.
There is also another equally sensitive and equally important school of thought that actually embraces the disability identity. Here, people don’t see their disabilities as barriers. Rather, it’s the barriers that society creates that limits equal access for everyone. Some of the barriers that people using wheelchairs have are potted sidewalks, limited accessible housing and limited accessible transportation. These are societal barriers, not personal ones, which is why some people identify as being disabled — disabled due to the barriers of society.
There is merit to both schools of thought. Ultimately, I feel that the best way to identify someone is to ask them how they would like to be identified. However, I am curious about the meaning of disability. Disability, by definition, can also mean the inability to do something. With societal barriers removed, we are all capable of doing anything. The human race is the most adaptive species in the animal kingdom. Our universal ability to problem-solve and reason is what separates us from all other species. We all have different and adaptive ways of approaching life. In that regard, there are no disabilities, only different abilities.
The U.S. Paralympics National Championships at CSM really exemplified this way of thinking. During this weekend’s events, visual-impairment was not a barrier for reigning world champion Lex Gillette when he took home the gold for the long jump. Despite spinal bifida’s deteriorative effects on her spine, Tatyana McFadden, who uses a wheelchair, won gold in the women’s 100 meters. In April, she won the women’s wheelchair race at the Boston Marathon for the second time. One would have been hard-pressed to see any disabilities at CSM this weekend. Witnessing the abilities of all the athletes was truly awe-inspiring.
Vincent Merola is the systems change coordinator at the Center for Independence of Individuals with Disabilities — an Independent Living Center located in San Mateo, California.