Guest Post: Temporarily Able-Bodied: Useful, but not always true

by Laurie Toby Edison and Debbie Notkin
Body Impolitic

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.

27 thoughts on “Guest Post: Temporarily Able-Bodied: Useful, but not always true

  1. I prefer the term CA – currently abled. It denotes the possible temporariness of being abled, and it doesn’t discriminate against those with mental disabilities like TAB does.

  2. I don’t know about other countries, but here in Germany, disability is defined as having lower abilities than what would be average for our age, thus impairments only caused by age do not count as disabilities. Obviously, this doesn’t negate the fact that older people often experience impairments, and accomodations are often offered for people with disabilities or senior citizens. So here, even the assumption that many people will get disabled with age doesn’t make sense. Also, as Anji mentionned, TAB discriminates against people with mental or learning disabilities. I like the CA ze just mentionned. It makes more sense, because in addition to being inclusive, it doesn’t assume that everybody will end up disabled at some point.

  3. I must admit that I have a slight aversion to the term “able(d)”. I tend to read it and thing “Able? To do what?” And that’s where it gets tricky for me.

    There’s a popular misconception that there are things that all currently non-disabled people can do, and all disabled people cannot do (eg, manage self-care, have fulfilling lives, etc). In fact, this not correct, and it fails to account for the variation between currently non-disabled people and between disabled people. In fact, it just fails to account for the variation between people. I guess I think there’s a fine line between emphasising the systematic disabling of people with certain physical or mental conditions, and emphasising all the things we are presumed not to be able to do.

    Having said that, the term “able(d)” can be useful *precisely* because it plays on the idea that there *are* assumptions made about what disabled people can and can’t do, and what non-disabled people can do. Just like “disabled” does.

    I used to joke around about how I was going to start writing “dysabled with a Y”, because it annoyed me that disabled people were presumed not to be able to do stuff. But of course, that’s the whole point of using the word “disabled”. Moreover, part of the point of talking about what we can’t do is to talk about the fact that what we can’t do is not inherent in the conditions on the basis of which we are disabled, but rather, that disability is socially-produced.


  4. In fact, this not correct, and it fails to account for the variation between currently non-disabled people and between disabled people. In fact, it just fails to account for the variation between people. I guess I think there’s a fine line between emphasising the systematic disabling of people with certain physical or mental conditions, and emphasising all the things we are presumed not to be able to do

    This is something I’ve been thinking about lately, but I don’t really know how to conceptualize natural human variation vs. disability in my mind. I know that there are plenty of things I can’t do that many people can that aren’t a disability, per se. Is it because we don’t have a particular medical explanation for those things? Is it purely a social labeling issue? I don’t know, though I’m sure people have thought about it before and come up with interesting ideas, which I’d love referrals to if people had the time and inclination. 🙂

  5. Katie:

    In the Social Model of disability, we generally say that some people have certain impairments, and that society disables those people on the basis of those impairments. That is, not all impairments are disabilities, because society doesn’t disable on the basis of *all* impairments.

    (Of course, there’s an issue about what gets classed as an “impairment”.)


  6. Anji, I like that a lot!

    Lounalune, that’s interesting about Germany. It’s so easy to assume that how we do it where we live is how everyone does it. Thank you!

    IP, I think we’re talking about the exact same things.

    Katie, I’ve recently started saying that I want to “preach the gospel of human variation,” not just around abilities, but that’s one huge area. I hope people come up with resources in answer to your question, so I can read them.

  7. Can I also agree with Anji on the use of ‘currently abled’? I realise TAB is the popular term, but it does ignore those of us with mental disabilities – something not helpful, especially given that (in my experience, anyway) disability is most often represented as being physical. For example, the symbol for a disabled person is generally someone in a wheelchair. Currently abled is far more inclusive.

  8. I also like “currently abled” as a term–not only because it’s more inclusive of invisible/less physical disabilities, but also because I feel like it leaves room for disabilities that tend to fluctuate in intensity over time. When I’m not depressed, I’m basically “currently abled,” and I think the term would have even more value in that capacity for someone who is depressed once in conjunction with some kind of life stress, receives the MDD diagnosis, and hasn’t relapsed in the however many years since (compared to someone like me whose depression will likely periodically recur, if past experience and family history are any indication). And I think it’s equally helpful for someone who has really bad joint problems, has the joint replaced, and sees a lot of hir limitations disappear after recovery from the surgery.

  9. Thanks for this post, Laurie and Debbie; it’s given me a lot to think about!

    I’ve started using “currently abled” recently and have found it to be more inclusive.

  10. this is indeed a lot to think about. i do like the term “currently abled” because it is more inclusive of all types of disabilities, whether related to physical functioning or not. but i am concerned about the interpretation that Monica mentions, where someone without a current flare-up of symptoms or whose abilities aren’t currently impaired by an underlying disability would be considered “currently abled.” for me, my mental disability certainly fluctuates in intensity over time and since i’m employed full-time, most would say my abilities aren’t significantly impaired. however, i still consider myself to be a person with a disability at all times, regardless of where in my cycle of impairment i happen to be at the moment – this is because i require attention, treatment, and accommodations to keep myself in that “mostly functional” state and to prevent the cycle from turning to the totally impaired/unable to function part. i consider that need to be part of my disability and am worried about being seen or defined as “currently abled” and thus not a person with a disability just because i’m doing relatively ok right now.

    a lot of my thinking on this has been informed by the supreme court’s line of thinking on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability and mandates provision of accommodations. in Sutton v American Airlines, the court found that someone whose disability was “mitigated” by treatment, medication, or durable medical equipment would no longer be considered to be a person with a disability and thus wouldn’t be covered by the ADA. in the case, people with very very bad eyesight but who wore powerful glasses that corrected their vision were considered to be not disabled. similarly, someone whose diabetes was fully controlled by insulin would be considered non-disabled – and then would have no way to access accommodations for them to continue using insulin if it required a break at work, etc. i consider my ongoing need for medication, cognitive therapy, etc, to be similar and am concerned that my ability to maintain my currently functional status would be impaired by being seen as non-disabled because of my current functionality.

  11. I really dislike “abled” or “currently abled”, because it conflates disability with inability, my personal pet peeve. There are people who are disabled (by society) and those who are not, I call them non-disabled.
    What Lounalune said about Germany isn’t entirely correct I’m afraid, the law doesn’t say “lower ability” but “impairment” blind people for example don’t have lower abilities, it’s just their sight that’s impaired, and it’s society that disables them as a result of that impairment.
    People have often accused me of splitting hair, but I think language is really important, because disability is a social injustice and doesn’t mean inability and our language should reflect that.
    .-= Kowalski´s last blog ..Uncanny =-.

  12. Every term has it’s pros and cons, of course. I think I also prefer “currently” to “temporarily” because it reflect reality a bit better, imo. Some people will never become disabled, some people will always be disabled, and some people go back and forth. Currently best describes that reality. As far as the rest of the label, I still think there are too many pros and cons to them all for any to fit re: “abled”, “able”, “able-bodied”, “non-disabled”, etc. I’d love to hear something better for that part of it!

  13. My absolute favourite is “currently enabled” – enabled as the antonym of disabled – but unlike most variations it isn’t really clear what it means from context if you haven’t seen it before. I used “currently (en)abled” for a while, but thought it was confusing + I was a bit lazy so am now one of the “currently abled”-using people.

    And I am both interested and feeling rather guilty reading that about Germany as it makes me aware just how little I know about the laws in my home country by now…

  14. In response to abby jean’s comment … This feels like a philosophical question to me. I honestly don’t know how your concern can be reconciled with the idea of disability as defined by what society is unable to accommodate. Because if society is able to accommodate a person’s needs, what is to be made of the struggle that remains?

  15. I’m not fond of TAB because I think it can imply that nondisabled listeners should care because they might or will become disabled someday, as opposed to caring for the sake of other people’s rights. It reminds me of rhetoric such as “feminism benefits men, too!”… even if it’s true, it should not be the number one reason people become allies.

  16. @hsofia – i wish it were only a philosophical question, because society is not currently able (or more likely, willing), to accommodate needs, and people wwith disabilities are often forced to resort to the legal system to enforce these rights. so the question of who is considered “disabled” and thus able to enforce rights allocated only to the disabled is a very practical issue indeed.

  17. Lauren – in a perfect world, people would care about disability rights because they affect another human being, not because it could affect them some day.

    Unfortunately, the world is not perfect, and if we make people think that could be me, maybe PWD are people, maybe they’ll care.

    We want to know what’s in it for us. I think using TAB is good at the 101 level, just another way of acknowledging how much of life is determined by luck.

    “I may need a wheelchair ramp one day!” vs “People I don’t know need one now” – as long as one is built now*…. I think we need more actions on a big scale… TAB is imperfect, I just like saying “without disabilities”, but CA is good too.

    *Yeah, a cliche, but it’s concrete and something a CAP can understand easily.

    What about CAP – current abled person?

  18. CurrentLY Abled Person.

    TAB, ironically enough, is dehumanizing. PWD is not – people is in the name.

    TAB reduces able people to their bodies. Unless we just use it as an adjective, but I think CAP could work as a noun, since it has person/people. CA as adjective?

  19. For me, this comes back to determining what constitutes ‘disability’ and what doesn’t. And what point does something become a disability? A paraplegic can’t walk, we generally consider that to be a disability. A left handed person (generally) can’t write with their left hand, I doubt many people would consider that a disability. Fat is another condition that is hotly debated as to whether or not it is a disability. I am fat and have chronic depression and anxiety yet because I function at a high level (when I am medicated properly) I don’t think anyone would consider me disabled. I don’t identify as disabled because I feel my conditions (when managed) don’t bring about any inability to do things. When I am not medicated and in crisis mode, well that is a different story! So at what point do we classify someone as disabled? Should it be up to the individual to decide whether they identify as disbaled or not? What then, if the medical profession doesn’t support that identification? What if the situation is reversed and the medical profession designates an individual as disabled but the individual refuses to claim that mantle? Does society have a right to label someone in such a way? What if we didn’t pathologise everything and didn’t live by the medical model? What if there was no such thing as ‘disability’ and rather we were all considered able, or variationally abled? I have been told sight impaired folk often have a more sensitive sense of hearing, therefore they are more abled in some aspects than those without a disability. I am sure there are a lot more things that the ‘disabled’ are much more abled in than the able bodied folk are. So who decided who is able and who isn’t?

    Sorry, more questions than answers but I find it fascinating. Especially because of my own ‘no (wo)man’s ground’ with fat and depression/anxiety.

  20. Lauredhel has pointed out one way to use TAB — Temporarily ABled. And when I use the abbreviation, that’s the sense I use it in.

  21. I don’t like temporarily able-bodied either, not only because it excludes people like me, with invisible or mental disabilites, but also because in my mind, it takes meaning away from the word/concept of disability.

    I’m having trouble thinking of words to describe what I mean….There is a distinction between an enabled person and a disabled one, and to me, using the term temporarily able-bodied blurs that distinction, and gives enabled people another excuse to go down the road of “we’re all disabled in some ways!” rubbish that I hate so much.

  22. @Bri: Like many marginalized-person issues that are said to be ‘complicated’ the issue of what makes a person disabled turns out to be fairly simple. Being fat isn’t considered a disability because most people who are fat don’t consider themselves to be disabled and being fat isn’t–for most people–an impairment. There are some people who are impaired by their weight and may well consider themselves disabled. There are some similarities in needs because there are parts of the environment fat people cannot access because they weren’t designed to accommodate them.

    People who are barred from accessing significant parts of their environment, be it social, economic, or physical, due to long-lasting or permanent impairments, are disabled. Some impairments (mild to moderate myopia being the classic example) may be accommodated in some societies to the point where people who have them don’t consider themselves disabled. But as was pointed out earlier in the comments, accommodations and adaptive technologies don’t remove all the difficulties a person who has that impairment may face. A person who wears glasses to correct for nearsightedness is just fine as long as ou has ou glasses. If they’re broken or lost a whole host of issues arise: driving becomes hazardous to impossible, just walking can be a problem, ou may get headaches from trying to focus on things that won’t make themselves clear. If ou can replace ou glasses quickly, great. If ou can’t replace them at all, then that impairment that usually isn’t a disability may well become one.

    And there are the different meanings for “I am a disabled person.” One involves convincing governmental and other entities that you are disabled according to their deeply harmful rules so that you can get assistance: parking tags, health care, housing, income assistance, food, an aide if you need one. Basically it comes down to “how fucked up can you prove you are?” It’s a shitty system but it’s the system we’ve got. By that definition no you probably aren’t disabled.

    Another meaning is personal/social/political: disability as identity–not that you are identifying as your condition but that you are identifying as part of a group of oppressed and marginalized persons. As a person with mental illness, you may decide to identify as a disabled person because they are conditions you will always live with and they always carry social stigmata. Or you may choose to not identify as a disabled person because your conditions are well managed. It’s up to you.

    There will never be a bright-line rule that divides disabled persons from currently non-disabled persons. The boundaries–like all boundaries of human categories–are fuzzy and must be.

    The meme about how people with disabilities compensate by becoming more competent in other things is ableist bullshit. It’s a story told by the currently non-disabled to the currently non-disabled so they can feel better about our being marginalized. We’re not actually inconvenienced by being disabled by the world designed for them; we’re gifted in other ways! So they needn’t concern themselves with us.

  23. This is a complicated subject, and that’s one of the reasons we wrote this post. Finding adequate language to explain ourselves and our issues takes hard thinking and clarity. The comments that have come in on this post are clarifying and really useful. It’s always a pleasure to post here.

  24. When I first read the phrase “temporarily abled”, it dramatically changed how I see disability issues. I never used to ask myself “is this accessible?”, but it’s a common question to me now. I admit that it still slips my mind at times when it shouldn’t, but I hope that eventually I will gain an awareness that is proactive.

  25. Hi – I was linked over here from Shakesville, in a comment thread wherein we were discussing labels. I just wanted to say thanks to all who posted for the very useful discussion in this thread, and that for the time being, at least, I’ll be moving to using “Currently Abled Person” or CAP, for non-PWD.

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