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It’s time to reframe our perception of disability


I once had a dance teacher who swore that some of the most innovative dance moves were created by dancers with injuries that prevented them from doing a move correctly. What they created to adapt for their bodies was even better than the original.

That sentiment can be applied to many aspects of life. How many tools and devices have been invented because someone didn’t have what they needed on hand? Or to compensate for one’s area of weakness?

Similarly, many people with disabilities find that the adaptations they make for their disability or the traits inherent in the disability itself provide them with advantages.

Under the social model of disability, it is understood that what limits a person with an impairment is not their body, but the barriers that their environment place on that body. Proponents of the social model of disability acknowledge that their body or mind might be nonstandard (such as having a limb or sense organ that functions differently or a mind that processes information differently than the majority of the population). But they see that as a normal part of the human experience.

Many disability advocates build on that concept and propose that what others see as a disability can be a strength. For example, many people with learning disabilities find that because they have struggled with reading, they develop extraordinary memories. These talents benefit them in their later careers.

Another example is found near San Francisco in Silicon Valley, where you can find vast neurodiversity. Neurodiversity refers to the wide range of ways that different people’s brains function, with autism as a subsection. The skills that most people with autism have (attention to detail, ablity to focus on a single task for long periods, work independently from others) are the very skills necessary to thrive in the tech industry. This leads one to suspect that the United States’ dominance in the tech field is directly attributable to people with autism.

Disability in our society has historically perceived negatively. It is something to cure or at least treat. Treatment has its place, especially for people who experience pain or discomfort as a result of their disability. But by focusing on ridding people of their disabilities, we discount the capabilities they offer. In fact, studies in children have indicated that our perception of our abilities is a stronger predictor of our success than any objective measurement of our capabilities.

It is time we reframe our perception and recognize that disability is not only a normal part of the human condition but also a potential strength. By doing so, we find new pools of talent and give young people confidence to succeed in life. We also shift our focus to solving the real problems – namely the physical, social and emotional barriers we construct for people with disabilities to overcome.

Tara Kiene is president/CEO of Community Connections Inc.