Guest Post: Temporarily Able-Bodied: Useful, but not always true
by Laurie Toby Edison and Debbie Notkin
Following up our post here late last year about “disability and aging,” we’ve been thinking about the phrase “temporarily able-bodied,” a mainstay of disability community language which we’ve both been using for 30 years or so.
In Annaham’s Disability 101 post on this blog, she says:
“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.
We have the highest respect for the use of TAB and “temporarily able-bodied.” Using it is a way for a disability activist (or anyone discussing disability) to quickly and effectively bring all of her/his listeners into one group: some of us are disabled now and many of us will be sooner or later. It’s a phrase that builds community, that reminds people that the needs of some are really the needs of everyone. It’s akin to “universal design” as a phrase reminding us of what brings us together, rather than what separates us.
At the same time, like any catchphrase, it’s oversimplified. Disability is not inevitable. Only two things are always temporary: life, and youth. Everything else is conditional, contextual, and/or statistical. Definitions of ability/disability are exceedingly complex; even definitions of “aging” are less obvious than they might immediately appear.
Ability is not always temporary. Two large groups of people are able-bodied until they die: first, those who age able-bodied (not just 90-year-old hikers but also people over 80 who walk to the grocery store every day and clean their own homes). Second, and harder to see, are the people who die able-bodied at any age. In a culture that tries not to admit that people die at all and is especially resistant to admitting that young people ever die, it’s important to remember that death and old age are not synonymous. And, of course, disability is not always permanent either: the world is full of people who are temporarily disabled.
To return to our catch-phrase, “temporarily able-bodied” is often used as a reminder that disability can come to any person at any time, that you can wake up able-bodied and go to sleep disabled, just as you can wake up alive and never go to bed again. In this meaning, it’s both true and useful. But it’s also used, somewhat more sloppily, as a prediction: you, the individual I’m talking to, will not always be able-bodied. And among the things that are disturbing about that usage is that it encourages the cultural conflation of “disabled” and “old,” so that people in their 30s or 40s who are in some kind of body pain say they “feel old,” when what they feel is pain.
We’ll both keep using “temporarily able-bodied” in conversations about disability. And in those conversations, when we have the time and space to elaborate, we’ll explain how we’re not using it.