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The problem with "able-bodied"

I hate the word able-bodied. I would rather hear “crippled,” “deformed,” the saccharinely condescending “differently-abled,” or even “moist” whispered over and over directly into my ear, than hear someone describe the state of not being physically disabled as able-bodied.

Obligatory disclaimers:

I’m going to explain why I hate “able-bodied” because I’m in a complaining mood and because I can’t expect other people to alter their language or actions based on my whims without building a convincing argument. But before I do, I should acknowledge that the language I use to talk about disability is probably every bit as grating to plenty of people who aren’t me. There is not vocabulary consensus in the disability community. Lively debates rage about person-first vs. identity first language (“people with disabilities” and “disabled people," respectively).

I think it’s a mistake to focus too much on language in conversations about disability. Too often, nondisabled people are afraid to interact with me. In theater and dance, they pull away when the choreography says to touch my deformed hand, even after assurances that they won’t hurt me. When it comes up in casual conversation, they clam up, blush with embarrassment or anger, and repeat that they “didn’t even notice” or “don’t even think of me that way” until I let the subject drop. And I’m always concerned, when it comes to conversation about the language we use to discuss disability, about making nondisabled people even more hesitant to engage with this part of reality. I would so much rather talk about it and hear language I don’t like than for this entire aspect of my existence to remain taboo.

Also, I’m talking about physical disability, particularly the visible kind. Invisible disabilities, chronic illness, mental illness, neuroatypicality, etc. are all worth discussing — they’re also not what I’m talking about right now.

Back to the actual blog post:

My earliest memory of "able-bodied" is from middle-reader historical fiction books where female protagonists would cut their hair short, don highwater trousers with rope for a belt, and answer job listings calling for able-bodied young men. I also vaguely remember my dad joking about my being (unlike him) young and able-bodied while assigning chores in the kitchen or garden. I’d never heard of it as a counterpart to disabled until high school, when, filling out an identity worksheet during a social justice workshop, I was prompted to identify myself as either disabled or able-bodied. I circled both.

I wasn’t trying to be a smartass. I didn’t realize the two words were being presented as mutually-exclusive, as opposites. I conceived of myself as active and healthy, able to maneuver my body through most physical spaces, not prone to tiring too quickly for manual tasks, so I circled it. My arm didn’t occur to me. Then I got to disabled, a word that I’d heard applied to me, and used to describe myself, my arm, for my whole life. I circled it.

The word able-bodied assumes some unspecified, but standard and universal, threshold of physical ability. But even the ones I imagined were arbitrary, based on my own vague associations with able-bodiedness from my upbringing and media consumption. Why manual labor? Why not having all five expected senses, or all four expected limbs? Being able to walk? Being able to navigate your way through the subway system using a wheelchair? Typing one-handed 80 words per minute? Buttoning a shirt using only one hand? Flying?

To put it another way, here is the transcript of a conversation I had with my best friend today:

HANNAH: I am forever irked by the word able-bodied.
KRYSTAAL: yeah fair
                       all bodies are able of shit?!!
HANNAH: and none bodies are able of everything

Of course, the abilities that come to mind when we hear the word able-bodied (my 14-year-old mind notwithstanding) are those abilities we imagine nondisabled people to have and disabled people to lack. Walking. Running. Using the stairs. That is, if we picture abilities at all. Typically, I suspect most wouldn’t think of abilities when they hear the word able-bodied. They’d think of a type of body, an ideal way for a body to look.

Using able-bodied to mean “in possession of a body that is not disabled” places the source of disability squarely within the body. There’s a word for that, and lots of writing on it by people who are smarter than me: the medical model of disability. In the medical model, disability is a deficiency in the body of the disabled person. Its counterpart, the social model, says that while (physically) disabled people have some form of body variance, we are actively disabled by the world around us: the inaccessible spaces, the technology designed for bodies unlike our own, the stigma and discrimination, the outright hostility or the double-bind of low expectations.

With every passing year, I live more in my body. I get so much joy from food, sexuality, exercise, dance, stretching, resting, noticing how emotions manifest within it, applying scents and clothes and ornamentation to it. And as I age, its abilities shift. If the standard for able-bodiedness is drinking more than 3 beers in an evening without getting a hangover, I do not meet it anymore. If the standard is running a 5k, I’m not up to snuff (although I’d better be by June). If the standard is a clean single pirouette, I would not have been able-bodied two years ago, but I am now.

But that’s the trick. None of these things are the standard. The standard is to have a nondisabled body. So, let’s start from a place of acknowledging reality. Let's say what we mean.


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