There is a college in northwest New Mexico that has a Health & Human Performance Center on its campus. Within that center is a large, well equipped fitness facility, which is available to the public for a nominal fee. I have used this facility numerous times over the years when visiting relatives in the area. It is very well run, and is absolutely the cleanest such facility I have ever seen.

They have an employee at this center who has been there for years. I have seen him working virtually every time I have been there. He does janitorial work, cleaning aerobic equipment, bathroom fixtures, drinking fountains, doors and other associated items in the facility. Everything he cleans is spotless; immaculate would likely be a better word. He never seems to leave a single spot on anything. I have watched him methodically work, wearing his gloves; carrying his spray bottle and cleaning rags. And he also carries a white cane.

Because he is blind.

He is an outstanding example of a person with impairment who is not totally disabled, instead choosing to be functional in society. I could refer to him as functionally disabled, but that doesn’t feel quite right. Disabled implies an inability, where in this case ability is being demonstrated. We can say he is functionally impaired, although that term is usually aligned with the concept of disability. I prefer it be separated from that negative connotation, and therefore am very open to more positive sounding suggestions.

As I have written before, and will continue to promote, impairment does not have to always equal disability. Our fitness center maintenance friend is an outstanding example of this. I understand that he has been blind since birth, so likely for him he is simply working in the world he has always known, yet he functions within the sighted world with excellent results.

I seem to have a habit of angering some people when I write of stories like this. They take to the comment fields here and on LinkedIn and assert that I am an idiot, or worse, intentionally evil for questioning any disability or suggesting people with impairments can live a productive life outside the realm of victimhood. I suspect some of these people are not the disabled. They are the “disabled”.

You see, there is in my view a distinct difference between disabled people and “disabled” people. Disabled people are those with severe impairments that make it impossible to perform many of the functions we take for granted. In some cases those impairments are so severe that they cannot perform any function without assistance; they are 100% disabled. “Disabled” people are those that may have a physical impairment, but their disability level is largely a product of their mind. That “disability” is often believed by them to be permanent and total.

I have slowly been identifying possible indicators to help define when we may be dealing with the “disabled” rather than the disabled. One such potential indicator is this: “Disabled” people often lack a singularly defining moment of injury. They did not get hit by a car, or fall down an elevator shaft, or get crushed by a piece of equipment. Instead, they tend to have more cumulative injuries, mostly of a soft tissue nature and often invisible to the naked eye. They may have, to quote one such person who was clearly unhappy with me, “Accumulated injuries of a hard life”.

Some of us would likely just call that aging.

At any rate, I would suggest that the anger these people throw my way is misdirected. They should not be mad at me at all. They should be mad at our blind cleaning person. They should be mad at Warren MacDonald, who lost both legs but kept climbing mountains. They should be angry with the man featured in this video, who chose not to believe his military injuries should leave him crippled for life.

Those guys are bucking the odds, and showing that impairment is a physical reality, while disability can largely be a state of mind. They are making some people look bad. And “disabled” people sensitive to that let it show.

I realize I risk sounding like a broken record, but I will continue to drive this point home. As an industry, workers’ comp needs to get better at what we do, and fostering a recovery mentality is paramount to successfully salvaging many of the injured coming through our doors. We need to focus on proper medical outcomes and timely treatment, as well as helping people recognize the potential of life with impairment. If we can do that properly, we will return more people to a contributory role in society, and everyone will be better off when functional impairment, freed from the bondage of disability, rules the day.

It is a concept so simple, even a blind man can see it.

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