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Calling Ourselves “Physically Challenged” is Bad for Disability Rights

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Calling Ourselves “Physically Challenged” is Bad for Disability Rights

Jun 16 2011

The problem with “challenge.”

There. I heard it again.

“It’s not our problem, it’s his challenge,” a young mother was saying about her disabled child. “My child is the same as any child. His challenges are just greater. I guess you’d say he’s physically challenged.”

“Physically challenged.” The new phrase.

We try to find ways to make our disability sound positive. The latest thing we’ve come up with is to refer to ourselves as “physically challenged.”

I don’t like it, though. It ignores a crucial fact: The reason we can’t do lots of things is not because we’re lazy, or because we won’t accept a challenge (isn’t it implied that when you won’t accept a challenge that you’re “chicken”?) but because many things are simply beyond our control. Like barriers. Like discrimination. It’s not admitting failure to accept a challenge. That’s admitting a political truth. And admitting a truth is the first step toward changing it.

Until you’ve tried to make it your responsibility to get a job, only to find you can’t get in the company’s front door because of their steps and your quadriplegia (and the company isn’t required to put in a ramp, so it doesn’t), you may not understand why “challenge” is no good as a description of what we face.

Until you’ve made it your responsibility to get downtown, and discover there are no buses you can get on, you may not realize that it isn’t a challenge you face, but discrimination. But when you call your local paratransit service and they say, “Sorry if it’s not for a doctor’s appointment, we’ll have to put you on the waiting list — maybe we can schedule you in 10 days or so,” you should begin to realize it. A challenge is something you can solve by yourself. You can’t solve the paratransit problem by yourself.

“Those of the handicapped constituency who choose to have others bear their burdens and eliminate their challenges are seeking to avoid the central issues of their lives.” That’s from [Reagan appointee] Eileen Marie Gardner’s writings. do we believe this? Evidently we do.

Many people would tell us that we are “challenged” by our disability to do the same things as people who aren’t disabled.

“And if we can’t?” we might ask. The person who believes in “challenge” would say that it’s our failing: we haven’t met our “challenge.”

Isn’t this just the same old crap we’ve been told all along, under a new title?

When are we ever going to believe, in our hearts — truly believe — that our problems are not things we are given by God, to solve ourselves, but are things that we have a right to require our society to change — because the problem isn’t our disabilities but the inaccessible environment which society built in the first place?

We say that, all the time. But we don’t really believe it, do we? If we believed it, wouldn’t we see that calling ourselves “physically challenged” is bad for disability rights?

Source: The Disability Rag, July 1985