Rebecca Garden, in her article “Disability and narrative: new directions for medicine and the medical humanities” wrote that “rather than coping with or overcoming their impairment, many disabled people see their impairments as integral to their lives.” This message regarding new directions in medicine for working with people with disabilities may sometimes be overlooked despite its importance. I would like to share a personal story that illustrates this point.
I’ve been short all my life–but not short enough to be considered disabled. When I lived in China, everyone was always trying to get me to grow–like I had a choice in the matter. They would bring up the fact that I could not get a job since there was a height requirement for pretty much every occupation. I wanted to be a teacher and the height requirement was the ability to reach the top of the chalkboard. Sometimes, maybe out of false hope, they would reassure me over and over that I have one last growth spurt, even if I was already eighteen years old. I was fine with my height, but the incessant chatter was extremely discouraging and annoying. When I came to America and learned that most civilian jobs had no height requirement, I was so happy to have left the Chinese thinking of height impairment. Here, in the land of accessibility ramps, being short would not affect my lifestyle and I can go into any career that I would like. I would no longer hear people sigh at me or have them look down upon me (no pun intended!).
In the article by Rebecca Garden, another point was brought up in that disability is not a physical or mental impairment manifested by the person, but rather it is shaped and defined by society. In recent years, I have realized that many Americans make just as many remarks about my height as the Chinese. The remarks were just subtler and, perhaps because of that, were more offensive. Sometimes, people do things for me, like moving a heavy object without asking if I can manage it first. I am not talking about grocery store employees who ask their customers if they need help. I am talking about when someone singles me out because he or she assumed I cannot physically move an object and never gives me a chance to do it on my own. “Can you reach the top shelf?” Such comments were funny at first, but eventually these jokes get old. “No, I can’t.” And I bought a stool to use at home. “It is not that weird.”
I do not consider myself disabled, yet I am still occasionally made to feel bad about not being over five feet tall. I cannot even begin to imagine how someone, who has a visible physical abnormality, would feel. There is a gray zone between helping individuals with disabilities, especially with a task that they can complete by themselves, and making people feel pitied. The truth is without knowing someone personally, we will not know which side of that gray zone we are standing on. As medical professionals, we will encounter many patients with disabilities. A general society, regarding its perspective of disability, perhaps places judgment on the degree of disability or on the diseases, but medical professionals should weigh in this matter only in the purpose of collaborating with the patient and from the patient’s perspective. Perhaps it may seem like semantics but our patients are people with disabilities, and we should not pigeonhole them, from our perspective, as disabled. Our duties are to take care of our patients with the available resources and to advocate for more when what is available is not enough. That is how we should see disabilities.