What Does Disability Look Like?

Nov 03, 2010
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If the number of American adults diagnosed with arthritis is 51.2 million (Centers for Disease Control) and the number of Americans with disabilities is 54.4 million (U.S. Census), I’m confused.  Does almost everyone with a disability have arthritis?  Or does everyone that has a disability also have arthritis?  Or do people with an arthritis diagnosis not necessarily report themselves as having a “disability” so there are actually way more than 54.4 million people out there with one?  I know there are more than 3.2 million people out there with a disability other than arthritis, so what gives??

I am somewhat familiar with the research world so I know there is no easy answer.  I also know that there is no easy way to ensure that each individual person diagnosed with arthritis in the entire country is counted, nor is there an easy way to make sure self-reported information is completely accurate, or that everyone thinks of the definition of disability exactly the same.

And that I guess is where my point lies.  Labels and terms can often just be flat-out misleading.  I have often been in conversation with fitness professionals about working with people with disabilities and it will come out in the dialogue that they already train the individuals that we are talking about.  To a lot of people “disability” means using a wheelchair or having a specific condition that someone else can visually recognize.  But when a personal trainer says, “Oh yeah, I have a client that has some spasticity;  guess it was from that stroke she had 10 years ago.”  THAT’S who we are talking about.  More fitness professionals have experience training people with disabilities (chronic health conditions, activity limitations, diverse function, varied abilities, whatever you wanna call it) than you think.

After reading this . . . is that you??

Author: Blythe



  • sakami

    Could you please clarify your point here? I’m not sure I understand clearly what you are trying to argue.

    Are you complaining about people with unseen disabilities as being categorized as disabled? Perhaps you are saying that people use the term “disabled” too loosely?

    Or are you saying that there are more people with disabilities than our society makes clear…. Meaning, that disabilities education, awareness, health care is a larger issue that most would think and therefore needs more emphasis?

    If you are saying that chronic conditions are not a disability, then you are in most likely in stark contrast to the ADA, which is how I define disability, and how most in the field do. However, perhaps you already know this? Not sure where you are coming from and I mean no disrespect.

    Going along with this… According to the ADA, whether any condition (seen or unseen) qualifies as a disability naturally depends on the context in which it is being defined. In most cases disability is a legal term used to describe impairment and limitations to normal life, such as mental health, learning disabilities, chronic conditions, and physical limitations, as described by physicians and verified by ADA Coordinators as something an employer can accommodate, for example. There are many other contexts of course in which disability can be defined.

    Therefore, you can have many people who have a “disability”, as per the ADA, but since it does not relate to their work, for example, but rather to their home life or hobbies, they may not have realized that they have a disability and do not self-disclose as such or seek assistance. They honestly might not know, but an educated trainer might.

    There is also the possibility that people are too private to list this on the US Census, or publicly disclose to their trainer, etc. They may also consider that unless they receive public assistance they cannot list themselves as disabled. There are so many permutations to why the numbers don’t match up.

    The most important thing, I believe, is that people get the treatment and guidance they need to live the best, most productive life, however categorized. Individuals should not discount themselves, nor should society at-large, so that we can actively contribute to the global human dialogue and goodness, achieve the simple, daily peace, happiness, and self-efficacy.

    Yes, there will always be people who may not technically have a disability and lie about having one; but then again, that just might be a mental health disability… I tend to ultimately stick to the advice of Voltaire (who I normally don’t quote because of some of his horribly sexist writings), “We should cultivate our own garden”, or we should not judge the way others experience disability, but instead focus on living according to our own health needs, disability or not.

    However, if you are talking about the very real presence of many, many people with disabilities who the American society does not count as “disabled”, you are correct. There is a huge disconnect and I totally agree with you. One note, though, from my friends in Europe- the US is much, much more advanced and open (believe it or not) in regards to learning disabilities and mental health disabilities than our neighbors overseas. Yes, this is a blank statement without a scholarly reference attached, so please comment if there are data to suggest otherwise (I honestly would like to read it). On the other hand, Europe is much, much farther along with seen disabilities, than the US. All you have to do is take a transatlantic flight and take notes about accessibility and treatment on the US vs. London, Paris, Berlin, Stockholm, Madrid, etc. The difference is plainly obvious, frustratingly so.

    Thanks for posting this interesting point of departure on the blog! Lots to think about here!

  • Sbonne2

    Thanks for your comment and request for clarification. I did not actually intend to sound like I was complaining about anything but just commenting that, as you said, there are many, many Americans that do in fact have a disability according to the ADA that do not get counted in census and research numbers, nor do they often count themselves as having a disability, whether by choice or misunderstanding/not knowing of an official definition. So I guess I was just acknowledging that the numbers we read about can often be misleading or hard to interpret. And since so many people consider only “visible” disabilities in this category, individuals who are not in the field and may be unaware of the statistics and ADA will far underestimate the size, needs, and power of this part of our population. i.e. Comments like “why should we make changes to a product or cater to such a small part of the population” tend to rile me up.

    So basically I think we are pretty much on the same page about a lot of this, so I do apologize if it didn’t come across in my writing that way. But hey, made you think, right?! And I got a lot of good points/quotes out of it too! Thanks again.