After being off work due to illness for over a year I got bored. It felt like I had watched all of Netflix and read all of the Internet so I decided to back to school. I’m upgrading my degree with some courses on disability. I already work in the field so it’s relevant immediately and could lead to further education if I choose to keep going.

The first course I took talked about the difference between impairment and disability and during the entire semester I thought it was a silly argument of semantics. Surely the words didn’t matter because they were synonymous. My impairment is my disability. Although my textbooks preached the evils of viewing disability through the medical model, as a problem to be fixed, I fought against the coursework all semester. I embrace the medical model, I told my classmates. Illness and disability can be one and the same! Of course I want to be fixed! Please take my illness/impairment/disability away!

A year later I am taking a follow up course where we read the same texts and come back to the same issues with a slightly different focus.

And this year I get it. Impairment and disability are not the same. Impairment is the physical fact of my bodily differences. That is more or less static. But disability is found in the relationship between my body and my environment. That is constantly changing.

Here’s a clear example:

I attend church most Sundays. When I attend my church there are stairs from the parking garage to the main floor, so I take the elevator (when it’s working). Then there are escalators up to the next level which is great, unless they’re broken (which is often) in which case I depart from the crowd so I can take another elevator. I cannot take my daughter in to her Sunday school class because there is a large set of stairs so I wave goodbye and she goes on her own. In the main sanctuary I sometimes find a seat in the back row but usually have to navigate a few stairs. I have fallen there before so I take it slow and careful. If there is communion served I can either raise my hand and ask to be served in my seat, or sit it out, as it again involves a lot of stairs. After the service I depend on my husband or, if he’s not there, somebody else to get my daughter from class. Then I have all the escalators and elevators to navigate again back to the car.

When I attend my friends’ church, like I did this past week, I walk in straight from the parking lot along with everyone else. I check my daughter into her class. I sit anywhere I want in the sanctuary. I participate in communion with the rest of the congregation. I pick my daughter up from class and get a big hug when she sees me enter her classroom. We walk to the car together.

My level of impairment has slight fluctuations but is more or less consistent. My level of disability changes drastically based on the context I am in. In one setting everything feels like a struggle. In the other things run smoothly.

It turns out it’s not just about words.

3 thoughts on “Words

  1. Keith says:

    Well said! Love the photo and the church example makes it clear how “different” architecture can make us feel from one another. Also a good reminder around accessibility: Just because an accessible option is in place (e.g. elevators) doesn’t mean it brings everyone together in the same way. It’s kind of like having a separate entrance to come into a building when it feels like everyone else can use the stairs… Not that there’s an easy fix for this, but something we’re often not very conscious of.


  2. Keith says:

    Another quick thought: Theologian Deborah Creamer likes to talk about limits as a way to encompass both disability and illness. It opens up the possibility that limits can be good and healthy experiences of embodiment, or limits can be barriers encountered, or they can be illnesses that people wish to eliminate. I like the limits model because it is a way to talk about a universal human experience without undermining the important differences between impairment and disability, like people who say “really, we’re all disabled” or “the only disability in life is a bad attitude” (barf)


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