A few weeks ago, the church that I work at took our youth to a roller-skating rink to start off the new year for youth group. Along with our youth, we had several parents, the associate minister, myself, and another congregant who for the purpose of this story I will address him as Max. Max is an older congregant and he had never gone roller-skating before. It was something he had on his bucket list to do and we were determined that he was going to be able to do it.
Like all new roller-skaters, Max had difficulty in maintaining his balance on roller skates. There is a certain ability in maintaining one’s balance on skates. Some people naturally acquire that skill while others need time to practice acquiring that skill. Max falls into the latter category. To be sure, he was very scared to go out onto the rink. I helped him, and stood next to him, holding on to him so that he didn’t fall and hurt himself as he slowly skated along the wall of the rink. While I was holding on to him, several people passed us and stared at us. Their stares were noticed by Max and he could tell he was being judged for not being able to naturally skate.
The people staring did not say anything; however, I can make an educated guess into what they may be thinking or what labels they were casting down on Max. It’s a label I hear too often:
I don’t like this label. In fact, I would even argue this is an oppressive label. It’s similar to other oppressive systems. There is a “norm” group that is set up as higher on a hierarchical system and those who don’t fit that “norm” group are treated more harshly.
To say someone is “disabled” is to infer that this person is lesser than a person who, I suppose, would be defined as…what able? I certainly don’t go around defining people as “abled” so why the hell would I want to define a person as “disabled”?
This label is a subtle form of ableism, but unfortunately is not usually seen as ableism. Disabled has been used for so many years as a “PC” term that so many people don’t even realize the danger of using it.
When you say someone is disabled, you place them separate from other people based on abilities, be they physical or mental, that you deem as needed or normal. If you speak a different way; if you walk a different pattern; if you see the world in a different view; if you interact with others and yourself different…
Notice how in each of those situations, I used the word “different”.
That’s because they are different abilities. For this reason, I prefer the term “Differently Abled”.
The term “Differently Abled” is much more inclusive and gets rid of this false hierarchy of abilities that we have created in our society.
However, when I was talking to someone about this term, they made an important observation. Even if we change the label of “Disabled” to “Differently Abled”, doesn’t that still create a label that separates people with different abilities to people with “normal” abilities?
I thought about this for a while and my response is yes and no.
The distinction is how we use the term “Differently abled”.
For five summers, I worked and volunteered for a camp called Camp Sunshine. Unlike other camps, this camp was for adults. The adults come from different places, both group homes and individual homes. To all the adult campers, this is their favorite time of the year. Many of them even use this week as their vacation time from work to come to this camp.
All of the adults have a variety of different abilities, so they could be labeled as “differently abled”. However, recognizing their different abilities is one thing, but if I was to put the label “differently abled” on the campers, then that is a different thing all together.
Saying they are “differently abled” does honor the fact that their abilities are not lesser or superior to mine. But there is a sense that “different” is still lesser.
Thus, when I use the term differently abled, I am not speaking to just people who do not fall into the “norm” abilities. In fact, I’m challenging that there is such as a thing as “normal” abilities.
In other words, we are all differently abled.
There are no normal abilities or abilities that make people better or lesser from one another.
When I volunteer at Camp Sunshine, I may be a counselor, but my abilities are not better than any of the campers. Just different.
Max’s abilities may not include coordinated balance, but anyone who receives a letter from Max feels like the most special person on the entire earth.
My abilities as a Non-Neurotypical person may make social situations scary and a bit awkward, but I have developed my listening abilities because of my more timid and quiet nature.
Some people may talk differently. Some people may walk differently. Some people may interact with the world differently. Not only is that okay. But it is sacred.
If you walk away learning anything from this post, please take away this important lesson: Don’t label, judge, or make people conform based on one’s abilities.
Recognize the person you interact with wholeness and love and as a sacred being.
Honor your different abilities, honor the different abilities of others, and remember you are loved with your entire Ruah!