In commenting on a post of Michael Berube's on Crooked Timber, I found myself thinking - as I have many times - about the meaning of 'normalcy' and 'disability' and about our on-going efforts to find ways to think and speak about both.
No one wants to be denigrated by others, and it is wrong of us to denigrate others on the basis of conditions that can be characterized as ‘disabilities.’ But I think we go too far in our efforts to avoid being denigrating or discriminatory if we suggest that everything is a matter of ‘difference’ or diverse ‘abilities.’ It may be generally regarded, in our culture, as offensive to refer to someone as ‘abnormal’ because of a physical, psychological, or cognitive disability. But our current views about polite language and our current state of linguistic sensitivity do not eliminate the fact that there is some range of human functioning accurately – if imprecisely – denoted ‘normal.’
My mother was deaf for most of her life. Had she lived to discover others insisting that she was not handicapped but ‘differently-abled,’ she would have been infuriated. Being deaf was a burden to her, not just an alternative way of experiencing the world. Perhaps this was because she became deaf at about age 7; so, she was acutely aware of having lost something. Perhaps those who are deaf from birth, not having this sense of loss, do not feel burdened. Indeed, insofar as the deaf can be quite high-functioning, it is not surprising that Def culturists argue that it is not a genuine ‘disability.’
Nonetheless, it cannot be wrong to acknowledge that humans are better off, ceteris paribus, when all their senses work. In the same way - perhaps less precisely - mental disabilities are not as desirable as mental ‘normalcy.’ The standard of normalcy may be vague, but there is meaning to the idea of the normal. Whatever the language we use – handicapped, disabled, X-challenged – to be unable, because of a physiological condition, to do something that or experience something as the majority of humans can is less than optimal.
Those of us who are old enough to begin feeling the debilitating effects of aging typically do not think of it simply as another stage of life, just as jolly as being young and hale. Our failing vision, failing hearing, aching joints, and decreased strength are not merely 'differences' - they are changes for the worse. Like permanent disabilities, these effects of aging are perfectly ‘natural’ in at least one sense of that term. Indeed, they are inevitable for all ‘normal’ humans who live long enough to experience them. It is unsurprising that we would like to find ways to prevent or minimize those changes. So too, it is reasonable that we want to prevent, or minimize the effects of, permanent disabilities.
None of this leads, de facto, to a denigration of persons who are disabled. My mother was a strong and capable person, and to some extent her deafness may have contributed to her strength. But she did not think it was desirable to be deaf, and I believe she was correct.
Photograph from Belchertown, Winter 2007