dis- 1. a Latin prefix meaning “apart,” “asunder,” “away,” “utterly,” or having a privative, negative, or reversing force (see de-, un-2); used freely, especially with these latter senses, as an English formative: disability; disaffirm; disbar; disbelief; discontent; dishearten; dislike; disown.

I’ve come to hate the word “disability.” It is a word used freely in our industry. We assess it, we rate it, we legislate it and we label it. Even worse, we apply the word with a casual nonchalance to human lives without thought or regard to its full meaning or impact. We might as well tattoo it on their foreheads and send them on their way – which of course they may no longer be able to do since the label can become a self-defining prophecy.

The problem is that the pre-fix “dis” when appended to any word makes an automatic negative. Content becomes discontent. Enchanted becomes disenchanted. Assembled becomes disassembled. Even the gruntled can’t escape the phenomenon. And when applied to ability, it becomes “Sorry, you no longer have any. 

It is frankly, dismaying, disappointing and very disconcerting.

I was speaking with a friend about this recently while at the IAIABC Conference in Virginia. He mentioned one of his good friends, a man in the industry whom I’ve met but do not know well. The man has a son who has Downs Syndrome. And the son has one of the best phrases to summarize his outlook that I have ever heard. He apparently tells people, “Don’t dis my ability.”

From the mouths of babes comes truth in simplicity and brilliance. (I don’t know how old this person actually is; for all I know he is a fully grown adult. But for the purposes of this story we’re going with him as an extraordinarily astute young man.)

Don’t dis my ability. Don’t dismiss my aptitude. Don’t discount my capacity. Don’t write me off because your perceptions of my condition are not aligned with the realities of my talent and ability. I absolutely love that phrase.

We speak often in workers’ compensation of both impairment and disability. I honestly think we inaccurately conflate the two. Impairment is a physical condition. It is the underlying situation upon where the concept of disability is applied. Disability is a legal and societal construct; and it is applied in manners often inconsistent with the realities of the impairment. It can also be defined by how the person reacts to their particular situation.

I have had the honor to meet numerous people over the years who have what could be described as significant impairments. They are missing limbs or have permanent painful damage to their bodies. But none of these people could be described as disabled, despite the fact that our legal mechanisms would assign them that label. They lead fully functional lives with strong contributory roles within society. In reality, impairment is the physical condition. Disability is determined by how the person chooses to deal with that impairment.

And for us to continually label people as disabled based on our perceptions of their condition is a disservice – to both them and our society. It becomes for many a self-defining role, a personal narrative that can be as damaging as the original accident or illness that brought them to our system. We must, as an industry, begin to look at the people we serve from the perspective of their abilities, and not our version of their potential limitations. 

We would be best to disown the notion of disability and focus on ability. We need to respect and encourage their capabilities. As wisely indicated from a person who should know, we should never dis their ability by assuming they no longer have any.


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