Lately, I have had a couple of eye-opening experiences about disability. For one, while looking up a number of dictionary definitions for spina bifida, I noticed each called the condition either a “congenital defect” or a “birth defect.”
That hooked me. For further clarification, I looked up the definition of “defect” on Merriam-Webster online. It said a defect was “a physical problem that causes something to be less valuable, effective, healthy, etc.”
The same online dictionary, and others, also defined cleft lip, cleft palate, Down syndrome, and a whole host of heart problems as birth “defects.” The Centers for Disease Control claims that “about one in every 33 babies is born with a birth defect.” One website I found had a listing of hundreds of “defects” in people, ranging from deafness and intellectual disabilities to short limbs.
But do these differences and others really make a person “less valuable, effective, healthy, etc.”?
A few weeks ago, I featured in a column Riva Lehrer, who was born with spina bifida. Instead of calling spina bifida a birth defect, which I had done numerous times over the years, I called it a condition. It would be a stretch to call Lehrer “less valuable” because of having spina bifida-or anyone with any disability being less valuable, for that matter. If anything, her condition helped make her more valuable to others. She has been a groundbreaking artist and writer about people with disabilities. What many people call a weakness, Lehrer has turned into a strength.
In 2002, my first newspaper column featured President Woodrow Wilson, who had dyslexia and couldn’t read until age ten. His father helped him to compensate for his learning disability by coaching him to be an incredible public speaker. With dyslexia, he certainly wasn’t less effective.
Which brings the question to mind: Is the word “disability” even accurate?
Again, Merriam-Webster online defines disability as “a condition (such as an illness or injury) that damages or limits a person’s physical or mental abilities.”
Primarily from writing this column eleven years, I could name off the top of my head dozens of people whose disability enhanced their lives and the lives of others.
Many people I interview wouldn’t trade in their disability for anything. They became better people because their “disability” favorably re-directed their relationships, spirituality, careers or life purpose.