Liberation by Disability: the paradox of Competency and Inclusion

“Because there is no way for good people to admit just how bloody uncomfortable they are with us, they distance themselves from their fears by devising new ways to erase us from the human landscape, all the while deluding themselves that it is for our benefit.”
~Cheryl Marie Wade

Disability is usually defined by what a person cannot do. But outside of the normative social realm, disability is really about how a person does things differently.

Within the cultural status quo, the onus of being “acceptable” for consideration to being included by others, is placed upon the person in question, rather than by those who are creating the standards and are choosing to accept or not. Frequently, inclusion must be “earned” by first mastering skills that enable the person to do things normally. Unfortunately, those skills are often more about enabling the person to pass for normal, than they are about enabling the person to achieve their own needs. For example, when the disabled person is deemed unfit to socialize because others find them “too weird” in their mannerisms or communication, this situation actually demonstrates that it is the others have the greater difficulty in socializing. The disabled person carries the entire burden of being flexible, rather than both parties being flexible to engage in reciprocal socializing.

As a disabled person, one must pretend to be normal to avoid discomforting others and thus be acceptable. The noticeably disabled are kept at arm’s length because they are visible reminders of others fears of frailty, lack of competency, and loss of status. The invisibly disabled are included until they are outed, and then face the others’ sense of having been deceived. “Normal” is the status quo for not only being average and common, but also being okay and acceptable.

Disability is seen as synonymous with incompetence, rather than as a situation where one solves life problems by using different means. But disability is not about what you can’t do – it’s about how one does things differently. Using different and adaptive strategies to achieve has somehow been perverted from ability to disability. It’s disgraceful instead of clever to figure out how to type conversations, or to handle utensils with a foot. The disabled have to be flexible, but the others’ lack of willingness to be flexible is projected and reflected upon the disabled as a fault.

Inclusion in the community is viewed as a privilege rather than as a right. When people “let” someone be included as a favour, this is not inclusion, it’s marginalisation. It’s merely visiting the community, instead of living there and being a part of it. Their continued presence depends upon conditional acceptance, which can be denied at any time, demoting the disabled person once again.

Inclusion means being a part of the group, and being given such supports as are needed as a natural matter of course. When we have to advocate to get “special” education and “special” transit and “special” work accommodations, everyone feels bent out of shape; the nondisabled feel put-upon and slighted, and the disabled feel that they are being singled out for having to make a lot of extra effort to barely achieve their rights and the things they need for ordinary existence. Inclusion does not mean having to do everything the same way that everyone else does.

Sometimes people are taught that they must learn to do everything the same way that everyone else does so they will be competent, and can feel good about their accomplishments. But no one wants to work three times as hard and take twice as long to do something not quite as well as others, when there is an easier way to achieve the same end with satisfactory results. Putting all that effort at trying to “pass for normal” is an exhausting way to live. A person’s self-worth is not going to improve from by achieving competency in tasks that aren’t important to them, or by achieving tasks that are accomplished with all that vain struggle.

Moreover, the standards we have set are arbitrary — the significance of a task varies from person to person. One doesn’t have to tie shoelaces, walk on two feet or be consistently toilet-trained to be a happy adult who is part of their community. We cannot say that to have worth (and therefore be deserving of inclusion) that a person must be able to do tasks X, Y and Z. Personhood is not requisite upon abilities or upon “productivity” of some work-related function. Rather, people have worth because they are people.

When we realize that we cannot live our lives in the perpetual terror of worrying about what others will think, or trying to be what everyone else expects we “must” be, we are freed. We are freed because we understand that we cannot be such, that we are not just unable but also unwilling to comply. We cannot be defined as less than full people because we do not achieve things by the same means. We are freed because we understand that we cannot be complicit to our own marginalisation.

Disability can be liberating not only to those so affected, but also to the nondisabled. As those on the outside stretch the envelope of inclusion, those inside can expand their understandings of inclusion, self-identity and group identity. We can be made more aware of how our sense of identity, inclusion and community have been shaped by the implicit and explicit mores that created and perpetuated such limits. We can also become more aware of the paradoxes that handicap our interactions with each other, and prevent us from social maturation.

“Disability is not a ‘brave struggle’ or ‘courage in the face of adversity’ …disability is an art. It’s an ingenious way to live.”
~Neil Marcus


  1. 28 November 2007 at 2:17

    Sorry to be way off topic from this post (which I agree with and can relate to), but, did you see this?

    Designation of UN Day could boost efforts to raise awareness about autism

    … To give you a hint, it quotes “Autism Speaks Now.”

  2. abfh said,

    28 November 2007 at 0:00

    “Any force that tries to make you feel shame for being who you are… is a form of tyranny over your mind. And it must be rejected, resisted, and defeated.”

    ~Al Gore

  3. 26 November 2007 at 16:04

    I too both agree and disagree. Thanks for a very thought-provoking post – a very interesting thought to encounter in the middle of a day spent reading about old and new views of disability.

  4. Club 166 said,

    26 November 2007 at 14:48

    I think this post accurately sums up the attitudes and actions of many who would exclude disabled people from society.

    I’m bookmarking it in my “classic posts” file, so I can refer people to it in the future.


  5. elizabeth said,

    26 November 2007 at 10:14

    Yes, no, no, no, yes, no.

    In Maslows heirchy (sic) love as well as implied group belonging are in the basic structures. People who accept that they can never please the group, they are free, but also alone. They are also the people who are the hardest to convince that you WANT to know them, that you care for them, you want to join your group. Or that they change behaviour to join a group in which they have value – in a high school I taught the worst dyslexic joined a gang and shot at a police man. He freed himself from a system which could not support his needs and his difference; he joined a group by which simple acts of destruction gave him status. Yet, I cannot see him as free, but trapped.

    True passing for normal is too exhausting for me now, but luckily I have an interpretor, a partner who looks and speaks like them and is believed by those who make decisions on my care. Without her, I wouldn’t be free to be exhaused but surviving, I would be confined, most likely to a time schedule made for other’s convenience.

    So, I agree, I disagree but I am provoked into thinking, and thinking more.

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