Injury versus disability
I have an injury – animal bites on my face, forearms and hands from a skirmish with a feral cat outside my office building. I’ve got quite a black eye with puncture wounds on my cheek, so my injuries are immediately visible. I’ve also got severe swelling in my left index finger so I can’t bend it or use it for anything, and bumping it against something sends extremely sharp pains through my hand that last for about half an hour.
I am having a fair amount of trouble with it. I can’t open jars or plastic packaging or use a can opener. I can’t hold the steering wheel very well with my left hand. I’m right handed so I can still use a pen and hold a fork and spoon, but my typing is totally jacked up – I can use the other fingers on my hand if I keep the injured finger extended, but that makes my hand go in an unfamiliar position and the rest of the muscles start cramping and aching if I do it for long, making me rely primarily on hunt n peck typing with my right hand. (I usually type over 120 words per minute, so this significantly slows me down.)
When people observe or hear about these functional impairments, they keep saying to me “oh well thank goodness this will heal. Imagine how it would be if you permanently lost the use of your finger!” and “well at least your face won’t be that wasy forever. Let’s hope it doesn’t scar.” They seem to regard these temporary injuries as a disability simulation of sorts and are reassuting me that I won’t continue to be this impaired or have this reduced functionality only because my injuries will heal.
I, on the other hand, feel that if these injuries were permanent disabilities, I’d have a lot easier time dealing with them. The problems I’m having are largely because it is a new situation for me and my habits and unconscious behaviours are all based on my assumption that my left index finger works fine. I haven’t had any time to develop the mental awareness or the physical abilities to compensate for the problems with that finger – if the other muscles in my left hand were more used to typing without that finger, I’m sure I’d be able to type more quickly and without as much pain in my left hand. Similarly, if my brain could remember that bumping left index finger leads to extreme pain, I wouldn’t have banged it against the car door every single time and I’d buy a purse with more organization capacity so I didn’t have to dig through it with both hands to find anything.
This isn’t to say that having this injury be permanent wouldn’t have long-term effects on my functional capacity. It just means that the functional effects of my temporary injury are in no way indicative of my functioning or my abilities were this a permanent disability. And that having this injury doesn’t teach me anything about what it would be like to have this disability.
The one aspect that has been eye opening for me is the demonstration of how entitled people feel to talk to you about visible injuries or disabilities. My finger isn’t that noticeable and I’m wearing long sleeves because of the weather, so only my facial injuries are visible – and boy are they visible. Even when wearing sunglasses to cover the worst of the bruised and swollen eye, the puncture wounds on my cheek are prominent. And in the day and a half since I was injured, I have been asked to explain “what’s up with my face” by virtually every stranger I’ve encountered. So much so that I’ve already started making up stories (my favorite: “I was being attacked by a vampire but I managed to deflect him so he bit my cheek instead of my neck.”). The feeling that my body is fodder for them to gawk at and demand explanations for is new to me, as my disabilities are usually not visible and I’m used to passing in public. While I don’t pretend this temporary experience in any way lets me know what it would be like to live as a person with a permanent visible disability, this is the only aspect of my injury experience that I feel is at all relevant to understanding the experience of disability.