Disability 101: Defining Disability

Hello, everyone! I am Annaham of HamBlog, and since I’ve written a Disability 101 series of posts, I thought it would be a good idea to cross-post some of the series here.  My inspiration was piqued by the Finally Feminism 101 blog, which is brilliantly maintained by tigtog of Hoyden About Town. I hope that this series will answer some 101-ish questions about disability. My hope is that this will serve as a starting point for people (of all abilities) who wish to learn more about disability, chronic illnesses and health conditions, and the issues surrounding disability/CI/CHC terms, etiquette, and frequently-asked (and pontificated-upon) questions. (In case you’re wondering who the hell I am and/or why I am taking on this project, my bio is located here.)

If you have any comments or suggestions, please feel free to leave them in the comments field. Please be respectful and on-topic when commenting.
Also, please keep in mind that I do not speak for *all* PWDs and folks with chronic illnesses or health conditions in this series. It is not intended as “the” guide to 101 questions on disability; my intent is to offer (pretty subjective) answers to common questions on disability, and of course, there will be folks who disagree.

Thanks, and enjoy!

What is “disability?”

The World Health Organization defines “disability” in the following way: “Disabilities is an umbrella term, covering impairments, activity limitations, and participation restrictions. An impairment is a problem in body function or structure; an activity limitation is a difficulty encountered by an individual in executing a task or action; while a participation restriction is a problem experienced by an individual in involvement in life situations.”

Additionally: “[D]isability is a complex phenomenon, reflecting an interaction between features of a person’s body and features of the society in which he or she lives.” [ Source]

But aren’t we all disabled in some way?

No. This sort of “folk wisdom” implies, directly or indirectly, that mundane things—things that may be minor inconveniences (at least for some able-bodied people–those with whom this bit of “wisdom” seems to be most popular), but that are not fundamentally impairing or restrictive to one’s quality of life or participation in civic and/or private life—are disabling, when they are, in fact, not. Disability, additionally, is a term that refers to a long-term or lifelong condition.

What is “ableism?”

Ableism refers to discrimination, devaluation, misconceptions, stereotypes, and prejudice—conscious or unconscious—of and against people with disabilities, the chronically ill, and people with chronic health conditions. As a culturally-based structure that often intersects with other oppressive “isms,” systems of privilege, and “-phobias” (such as racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, white privilege, cisgendered privilege, class/economic privilege, and transphobia) ableism assumes that able-bodied people are the “norm” in society, and as a result, culture, various institutions, attitudes and social mores are formed in accordance with the needs of able-bodied people.

What is meant by the terms AB and TAB?

“AB” is an abbreviation for able-bodied; “TAB” is a slightly more to-the-point abbreviation meaning “Temporarily Able-Bodied.” TAB refers to the inevitable—namely, that most of us will face disability at some point in our lives; whether it comes sooner or later varies depending upon one’s circumstances.

Originally posted at Faces of Fibro.

About Annaham

Annaham (they/them) is a feminist with several disabilities who occasionally updates their personal blog. They currently live in the San Francisco Bay Area with their partner, and an extremely spoiled Yorkie/Pom mix named Sushi. You can reach them by emailing hamdotblog AT gmail dot com.

17 thoughts on “Disability 101: Defining Disability

  1. Great first post to start a great series of posts.

    I have a question: Would you considder mental illnesses as disabilities? I find it hard to distinguish sometimes, especially when it comes to depression, OCDs, or other severly mental issues that can be very debilitating but can sometimes be “cured” with drugs, therapy or a combination of both.

    Would these people be considered “temporally disabled”? A lot of abelist language definitely refers to those people as well, as I have learned painfully. And oftentimes, even getting “better” does not erase the stigma. So are these disabilities? A related problem? An important,but different problem?

    I don’t want to be an annoying noob;I really would appreciate your point of view.

  2. I personally think that yes, mental illnesses can be debilitating, but I suppose it depends on the severity of the condition.

    There is a HUGE difference, additionally, between treating something and curing it. For example, I had problems with severe depression at one point in my life, and it was treated with a combination of therapy and medication; I would not say that it has been “cured,” at least in my case, as I still have depressive tendencies and could probably slide back depending on circumstances. It’s different for everyone, however.

    Thanks for your comment.

  3. I hope this is not an inappropriate question, as I am still learning about these issues, but I wondered about the part of the definition above in which “Disability, additionally, is a term that refers to a long-term or lifelong condition.” Given the preference for “temporarily able-bodied” as the descriptor for those who are currently without disability, can people not be temporarily disabled as well?
    .-= Rachel´s last blog ..New Feminist Disability Blog Launched =-.

  4. We’re talking three terms here, which actually confused me on first read:

    lifelong (i.e. permanent)

    I would say that — much as one month without income does not a poor person make — temporary (as in short-term) injury or illness does not necessarily disability make. However, a condition doesn’t have to be permanent to be considered disability.

    Also, the term “Temporarily Able-Bodied” is not really easily or neatly reversed here. We are talking about a shift from a position of power, or privileged status, to a position of disadvantage, or unprivileged status — it generally doesn’t work well to assume that a descriptor for one can be neatly reversed to well-describe the other (if this doesn’t make sense, I apologize, it’s late :)). The term TAB isn’t really pointing out the time in one status or another; it’s pointing out that power does not stay with you for always. There’s a distinction there I may not be describing well. Suffice to say I don’t really see that there’s a point to be made there (we use the term “temporary” in TAB, so because ability can be temporary, so then can be disability). Power, again, is what’s being left out of that reversed equation.

    Although this would be yet another great topic to explore from various perspectives, because I bet if you asked different disabled folks, you’d get different answers. 🙂

  5. I have a question, and this is probably going to make me sound like a horrible newb, but I gotta try.

    Why is the fat acceptance movement separate from disability activism? Like, is there’s some real big difference in theory that would explain it? Which I don’t really get–is it because there’s such a continuum between we-are-the-obesity-epidemic fatties and the fatty-fat-fat fatties and less of one between temporarily abled people and people with disabilities? (Like, “don’t say I’m not fat” vs “spoon theory isn’t yours.) Is it because fat isn’t considered a disability? It seems a lot like disability to me, really–but maybe I’m not getting the difference.

    Or is there a historical reason why the two movements aren’t together? Like fat people maybe not wanting to think that they have a disability because it would ruin their lives, or PWD not wanting to think that fat people have a disability because fat’s just not the same…I dunno!

    Basically, is it a theory thing, or a history thing, or what? Or ALTERNATIVELY is the fat acceptance movement secretly very much a part of disability activim and it’s just no on told me/
    .-= Quixotess´s last blog ..Oppression is a Trauma: Beyond Rape =-.

  6. Quixotess, there’s a lot of parallels in fat and disability activism. We travel the same road for quite a distance. However, there are still enough differences to make them distinct issues and distinct movements.

    I remember having written a bit in that intersection before (here) but it’s way too early for me to summarize the commonalities & divergences well 🙂 My apologies. But yes – they are two different social issues.

  7. Pretty much what AmandaW said; I’m fat, and a member of the size acceptance movement, and I’m also disabled, and involved in disability activism. But I do regard the two as separate. In fact, one of the key issues in size acceptance is that being fat does not make one inherently unhealthy, so it’s a bit dangerous to conflate the two, because it would seem to suggest that people who are fat are disabled. (I’m not disabled because I’m fat, for the record, I’m fat because I’m disabled, and, critically, I do not view my fat as a disability. I don’t need accommodations because I am fat, although I do because I am disabled, for example.)

    There are, of course, a lot of commonalities (like the fact that both fat and disabled bodied are stigmatized), but, yeah, the two are definitely different. (Just as there are a lot of commonalities between size acceptance and feminism, but size acceptance is not feminism. It’s a distinct movement all its own.)

    That said, I would hope that this site is friendly to members of the size acceptance movement, because we recognize intersectionality.

  8. “In fact, one of the key issues in size acceptance is that being fat does not make one inherently unhealthy”

    This is actually one of my key issyews with fat activism – not the factual nature of this statement, but the inherent ableism in the way it is wielded much of the time. “Good fatties” and “bad fatties” are categorised that way based on whether they have disabilities or not, with the TAB fatties being those who are deemed worthy as figureheads or mascots of the movement. (Similar dynamics occur for pretty & fashionable fatties.)

    This isn’t across-the-board – there are niches of intersectionality starting to make headway in the FA movement, and people doing that work – but I find that just about every space is soaking in it one way or another, and it is what alienates me from a lot of FA spaces. So I think Quixotess has hit upon an important point there, touching on that ableism as an issue.

    It reminds me pretty strongly of the way in which “hairy-legged lesbians” are seen as a marketing problem for feminism.
    .-= lauredhel´s last blog ..Linkblurt: We Are Immobilised =-.

  9. That’s a good point, Lauredhel, and there are definitely some ableism issues in size acceptance (I, too, dislike the good fatty/bad fatty dichotomy). And, again, I would argue that disability activism and size acceptance are not totally separate things with absolutely no intersection–both, for example, are at least theoretically interested in getting people to be more accepting of bodies which deviate from the cultural norm.

    Part of the ableism of the movement is, I think, social: because society says that being disabled as bad, size acceptance has chosen to fight the fight that fat isn’t a disability (and I really don’t think it, alone, is) in its attempt to get society to be more accepting of people of size. The flip side of this, of course, is that people who are fat and disabled or who view fat as a disability are marginalized by the movement (just as disabled women are marginalized by mainstream feminism). This is obviously a problem, and it’s one of the reasons I like the Fat Nutritionist so much, because she’s the one who said “you are under no obligation to be healthy” and she doesn’t get involved in the bad fatty shaming that I sometimes see in size acceptance.

    I just want to avoid saying “size acceptance and disability activism are the same thing,” because I don’t think they are. I think they’re social justice movements with intersections, and I think that the size acceptance movement needs some work re:ableism. And that’s the point in Quixotess’ comment I was fumbling at addressing.

  10. Ooh thanks for replying evverybody. Amandaw, I read the link, and I’m with you–I think “what can your body do for you?” is a somewhat warped version of “what do you like about your body?” Which I remember y’all making a post on that, because it’s a powerful statement for PWD and fat people to say that there ARE things that they love. Lauredhal, that made me laugh, because at first I want to say “but good/bad fatties is something fat acceptance works toward debunking!” and it does in some ways, but not in some really important ways in some spaces. (That I’ve seen.) After all, the Health at Every Size thing has its judgments right in the name. (I’m not involved in it, so maybe I’m missing some key explanation.)

    And I could see where temporarily abled fat women would want to distance themselves from women with disabilities–they don’t want to be associated with that, they don’t want to be tied to the idea of disability, similar to how TA women would want to distance themselves from women with disabilities. Because they don’t want to be put in the role of caretaker. Uh, which makes it all exactly like that argument there was on Hoyden About Town a while back about the hairy-legged lesbians, which Lauredhal already brought up. When we’d really gain more from uniting.

    And there is a marginalization of the bad fatty that I’ve felt too (& is why I refer to the we-are-the-face-of-the-obesity-epidemic fatties vs fatty-fat-fat fatties–some bitterness there!)

    So, it looks like mostly a history reason to me, is what I’m getting out of these comments.

    (And mehloukia, I love the fat nutritionist too, for the same reasons!)
    .-= Quixotess´s last blog ..Oppression is a Trauma: Beyond Rape =-.

  11. Just wanted to respond to AB (able-bodied) and TAB (temporarily able-bodied) terms.
    First, thank you for explaining — knowledge is often all that is needed to fill in the gap between awkward and comfortable around people with disabilities.

    Now, my raging anti-ableist comes out…
    I have a spinal disability and often post on message board specifically dealing with my particular limitations. Despite the fact that, yes, I have significant physical limitations and do seek support and advice from people who have similar lifestyles, I feel like I am always the only one pointing out that AB is very ableist and removes any perception of the validity of the body of the person whose body has a disability. Just because I have certain challenges doesn’t mean my body doesn’t have abilities, and I always think of the lazy person who chooses to not be active calling herself able-bodied while she views the the wheelchair athlete with pity. My solution: even though TAB is a step (a roll?) in the right direction, let’s take this all the way…
    people either have a disability or not,
    so we can say disabled or NON-DISABLED.
    Often, we say non-______ for not being something good and positive and admirable. Like, non-beautiful is a nicer way of saying ugly. I say, let’s encourage the use of “Non-Disabled” instead of AB or TAB all around us so that people might start to think — “hey, maybe there are positives about disability,” and also so they stop assuming that a body with a disability is lacking in all abilities.
    Thanks for reading!

  12. I like the term used on this site a lot, “people with disabilities.” I was taught that a disability is something you have, it’s not something that you are. Although I recognize that, like ones ethnicity, it’s more complex than that.

  13. Part of the trouble with mental illnesses as disability is the DSM classifies some mental illnesses as ‘curable’ and others as ‘not curable.’ I don’t buy the APA’s arguments, but there is a structure set up to classify illness according to what the APA thinks can be done about them. Axis I disorders are the ones the APA considers ‘curable.’ They are things like depression, anxiety disorder, EDs, etc. Axis II disorder are things they consider life-long and ‘incurable’ and includes mental retardation (I hate that term, but it is the one they use), learning disorders and personality disorders.

    This system is messed up in many ways- it leads to professionals not wanting to take on too many patients dxed with personality disorders and insurance companies severely limiting visits for things like depression because they have heard it is curable, among others. The APA would likely classify Axis II stuff as disability (except maybe PDs, because professionals tend to go out of there way to avoid anything PD related) but not Axis I stuff. Anyway, the implications of the axis system are really interesting and frightening.

  14. The implications of classifying things as ‘personality disorders’ are likewise horrifying. According to the highly privileged people who create the DSM, personality disorders are barely treatable, never mind curable. A diagnosis with one can haunt you for life, fuck up your chances of getting custody of your children, getting employment, placement in group housing if you need that.

    It’s a lot of power to invest in a person. And in a private organization.

    I personally would like to see the DSM destroyed. It does a lot of harm and little good for people who need help with emotional and mental disorders. It’s great for insurance companies but I don’t want them around either.

  15. Kaninchenzero, I’m with you on wanting to destroy the DSM. But to do that, the entire system has to change. And, as much as I’d like to think otherwise, that likely isn’t happening anytime soon. I think part of the solution is to work within the system for change, by getting more marginalized people onto the committees that make the changes, encouraging feminist approaches to therapy and psychology etc.

    Personality disorders really should go from the DSM. No real evidence supports their existence, they are very much like stereotypes and providers are all too likely to slap a dx of one on a person who they don’t want to deal with anymore.

  16. I’ve seen too many people who wanted to change the system from within be coöpted by it. I think our current president is a good example of this: I believe he was sincere in his campaign promises of wanting to close the prison camps at Guantanamo Bay and end the Bush II military tribunals. But the High Priests of Secrets–he wasn’t cleared for the super double extra classified top secret information–can, I understand, be very persuasive. And there are other interests wanting appeasement; the Republican Noise Machine screams constantly about national security while pursuing goals that make us less secure.

    So I’m not sanguine that just getting more marginalized people into the development committees is going to change much. There’s a rather good book, They Say You’re Crazy by Paula Caplan, based around her experiences trying to work within the system during the development of DSM-IV. It didn’t go well: she resigned in protest. The DSM-IV hasn’t been good for marginalized people and I expect the DSM-V won’t be any better.

    And yes the personality disorders really have to fucking go. If there’s a difference between post-traumatic stress disorder and borderline personality disorder other than some gatekeeper type doesn’t like the patient I can’t find one. I mean a difference in how people present. There are significant differences in outcomes: PTSD acknowledges that someone or some event damaged you. Borderline just means you suck. Sure you might’ve been abused but the way you behave makes people want to hit you. It’s official victim-blaming; it doesn’t get much more awesome.

    I’ve been given both diagnoses at one time or another. I like having the PTSD diagnosis better. I want the system that is supposed to help me and people like me to genuinely help. But too much of what we have now is too corrupt to salvage; the whole thing needs to be torn down and something new built in its place. My wife says I’m militant. I’m okay with that.

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