How disabled is disabled enough?
It’s a short question that can be plagued with a variety of different meanings and interpretations. However, the answer to the question is of extreme importance, because while being ‘disabled’ can provide benefits for some, not being ‘disabled enough’, can cause an immense struggle for others.
Although the question of whether someone is considered ‘disabled’ is important for many reasons, it is especially prevalent in the case of employment, receiving governmental disability support payments, perceptions of others and trying to seek assistance (including that of service dogs). This question arises out of a still prevalent medical model in society that categorizes those with disabilities based on biological traits, rather than looking at the contributing social factors such as barriers, negative attitudes, etc.
Co-workers and others often volunteer their opinions
According to the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund, in the case where an employee living with disability needs to defend against discrimination in the workplace they, “can be too ‘disabled’ to get a job, but not ‘disabled’ enough to challenge the adverse action by the employer.” For example in the case of Williams vs. Toyota, a lady with carpal tunnel syndrome was requesting additional supports to continue to work at a manufacturing plant, as she was having difficulties lifting and performing manual tasks in the workplace. However, unfortunately she was not granted her request because according to the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act), since she was still able to perform major life activities such as showering, eating, etc. she was not ‘truly disabled’. In this instance, she was ‘too disabled’ to perform her work comfortably, yet not ‘disabled enough’ to receive the supports she needed, according to the ADA. Withers states so eloquently in their book Disability, Politics and Theory (2012) that this is troubling as, “we are disabled if those in power say we are. This is an identity that is fully out of our control (p.113).” Therefore, if a doctor, employer, the law or someone else in power says that someone is not disabled, they are not disabled. This often trumps a person’s experience, leading to an ability to access the resources that they need. Going back to the case above, even though Williams felt that her carpal tunnel was making her work extremely difficult, something she thought could be alleviated with particular supports, since she did not fall under the strict regulations of the ADA, she was not able to receive the help that she needed.
Caught between too disabled to work and “not disabled enough” for help
Being eligible for Government Disability Support Payments can also be a struggle for those who are not considered ‘disabled enough’. In the case of those with episodic disabilities (i.e. MS, Diabetes, psychiatric disorders, etc.) for example, “because they are not entirely well (and employable), nor entirely sick (and unemployable), they are judged as ‘not disabled enough’ within the existing parameters of assistance (Lightman, Vick, Herd and Mitchell, 2009).” In this instance, those with episodic disabilities may fluctuate between being well enough to work sometimes, while at other times be unable to because of poor health. Therefore those, “individuals who cycle in and out of the workforce because of fluctuations in health and who encounter challenges in getting and keep work, ‘fall through the cracks’ of the social welfare system (Lightman, Vick, Herd and Mitchell, 2009).” Looking at this simply, the fact that they are able to be employed ‘sometimes’ makes them ineligible for government support, even if just for the times that they are not working.
Invisible disabilities are harder to “justify” than physical disabilities
Those living with invisible disabilities are also often considered as ‘not disabled enough’ because their disability cannot be seen visibly. People are taught to look for visual or auditory cues that are attributed to those with disabilities such as wheelchairs, hearing aids, white canes, etc. If these are not present, many assume that the disability must not be ‘real’ and therefore are not taken seriously when they ask for assistance, cannot complete something because of difficulties or require accommodation. It is important to remember that, “given that disability exists across a spectrum of bodies, experiences, and contexts, it defies precise description. Persons whose bodies resist prescriptive packaging as able or disabled are mired in no-win situations that are not easily addressed (Lightman, Vick, Herd and Mitchell, 2009).” In essence, this quote is simply referring to society’s belief that just because it does not follow the norm of how disabled bodies are identified, doesn’t mean it is not a ‘real’ disability. Everybody experiences disability differently and this needs to be taken into account when determining whether someone is disabled.
People with disabilities are often quick to judge as well
The service dog community also falls into the trap of trying to label who is ‘disabled’ and who is not ‘disabled enough’. The reason why this happens is often because they want to determine whether a person should be partnered with a service dog or not. In a post on the blog Service Dogs and Me, the author explains that, “when we first think of service dogs, we typically think of dogs for the blind. That seems to be the bar for disabled. I can see, I can speak, I can walk; do I really need a service dog?”
This can also cause difficulties for those who do not require assistance from their service dog all the time. In a post titled Am I Disabled Enough for my Service Dog? on the Spoonie Living Blog the writer explains that their service dog is, “a safety net. I may not need him 24/7, but if he isn’t there when I do need him, it can be -gasp- disabling!” Additionally, they explain that some people also do not consider deep pressure therapy to be a true “task”, which can make some question whether or not they are deserving of a service dog, despite the fact that it provides them with lots of benefits. They end by saying that, “the fact of the matter is, you have a disability that requires the assistance of a service dog. That’s why you spent so much time training (or were able to receive from a program) a service dog. Somehow, some way you are disabled and struggle in a way that a dog can help you. Whether that be applying deep pressure therapy or fetching meds or assisting with mobility, it doesn’t matter. Your disability is alleviated in some way by the presence of a service dog.” In this sense, those in the service dog community need to stop arguing over what tasks are more important than others, as it only further contributes to the societal debate over what is ‘disabled’ and what is ‘not disabled enough’.