We are all disabled

On March 2008 I published an article on this blog where I stated that we are all different, and thence that we are all normal, included disabled people, because being different is the normality. If you have not read it, you may want to do it before continuing to read this one.

Now I wish to demonstrate exactly the opposite, that is, that we are all disabled, in some way. The two statements are not in contradiction with each other: they simply demonstrate that the terms "normal" and "disabled" indicate relative concepts.

Let us consider first physical impairment. The woman in the image below, on the left side, is paraplegic from birth. So she is a disabled person. Now, look at the image on the right. Also the man in that image is on a wheelchair, but simply because he broke his left leg. So he is temporarily disabled, but he is experiencing mostly the same difficulties the paraplegic woman lives through from birth.

An accident might put each of us in such a situation. To have some accident is quite frequent in one person’s lifetime, so most "normal" individuals have experience of a disabled condition at least once in life. But you do not need to have an accident to know how many obstacles an individual on a wheelchair may experience daily. Have you ever walked with a baby pram in a crowded town? If you go in some suitable place, like a park, no problem, but try to go shopping, cross streets, enter buildings walking with a pram or a stroller. It is a real trial!

Let us consider now sensory impairment. For example, the man on the left image below is blind. He cannot see obstacles, he cannot recognize faces in the distance, he cannot appreciate the beauty of paintings or photographs. Have you ever been in such a situation? Do not respond immediately: just think. Have you ever experienced misty weather, when fog is unbelievably thick? Have you ever searched for a candle in complete and utter darkness during a black-out? Temporary situations, of course, but during those events you was sensory impaired.

Just look at the man in the image below at left. He is fat, really fat. It should be hard for him to move, walk, climb the stair. Probably there are physical activities he will never practice, as running or jumping. Have you ever practiced breath-held diving? Try it in a sea abounding in fish, like Red Sea or in the Maldives. You will feel awkward, a clumsy and goofy animal in comparison with fishes. You will move slowly and react laggingly. You are out of your environment. Under the water you are a disabled animal.

So, there is no body-related disability that cannot be experienced by a "normal" individual at least once in his/her life; probably more than once. But what about cognitive or intellectual impairment? What about mental disorder? We might think that we should rarely experiment such conditions. Well, probably it is true, unless you are a hard drinker or a drug addicted. But even if that is not the case, think. Did you ever undergo a surgical operation? How did you feel when you woke up from anesthesia? Some cognitive impairment is also typical of specific pharmaceutical treatment. For example, several psychopharmacons have impressive side effects on brain.

Anyway there are a lot of people who do not drink hard, take drugs or just psychopharmacons. So what? Well, you do not need to experiment some chemical substance to experience mind-related disabilities. Have you ever been in a foreign country? For example, a place where people speak a language that is completely different from yours, maybe using a different alphabet? You have no way to communicate. You do not understand natives and they do not understand you. Even asking a simple question may represent a problem. "What time is it?" "Can you show me the way?" Trust me: you feel really stupid.

But even if you know more than one language, you might feel embarrassed sometimes. For example, I know some English. When I go to USA for business reasons I always speak English because it is really difficult that someone speak my language. But I am not so fluent in English as I am in Italian, and even if my English is good enough to ask for direction, have a meal in a restaurant, or even have a meeting with American colleagues, I am perfectly aware that I create the impression of an illiterate person. For example, I can hardly understand jokes or follow the lyrics of a song from radio. If people speak too fast, I may miss some part of what they say. When I speak, I realize that I could say it better, especially if the subject is delicate and may give rise to misunderstanding. Even this article is probably full of mistakes, and in any case a good English writer would have written it differently. I write much better in my language, but as an English writer I am probably poorer than an American teen. So, when I write in English, I am a disabled.

Language is only a minor obstacle, however, when you go abroad. You may be taken by surprise because of different customs, conventions, even laws. You can easily get in trouble because of your ignorance. Some usage can be so different that it could be antithetical to your believes and habits. Nevertheless it is not necessary to go abroad to feel uncomfortable. It may happen in your country too when you visit a town you have never been before. You can’t get your bearings, for example. In many countries people living in different towns speaks different dialects or have different ways to communicate. What’s polite in a place can be offensive in another and this is true for gestures too. Few years ago, two Danish parents, visiting New York, left their young daughter in her stroller outside the Dallas BBQ restaurant in the East Village of New York while they sat inside. This is perfectly common in Denmark, where the crime rate is low. But in New York, where people chain down trash cans if they want to keep them, police were called when worried passersby questioned child safety. So the two parents were arrested and jailed for two nights. For the American judge they were bad parents, but they were not: they simply were used to a different behavior perfectly safe in their own country.

So, the conclusion is that we all are disabled in specific situations. Some people is disabled for the whole lifetime, others experience impairments for a limited amount of time or only under specific circumstances, but soon or later each of us will live through the disability. Think about next time you will meet a so-called "disabled" person.

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