Before I was diagnosed with a chronic health condition, I had almost no knowledge surrounding disability issues, finasteride e minoxidil 5 and I believed that ‘able-bodied’ was a helpful, inclusive term to use.
It wasn’t until I actively engaged with the disabled community on Twitter that I realised that it platformed physical disabilities over non-physical disabilities, creating a warped perception of what it means to be disabled.
At university, I encountered its use in seminars but felt too anxious to say anything. I sat quietly in the corner, wondering whether I was any less disabled for my invisible illness – and whether I was cowardly for failing to call it out.
The term ‘able-bodied’ is often used to denote a non-disabled person – I have heard it uttered seemingly innocently among non-disabled circles.
Its dictionary.com definition states ‘having a strong, healthy body’ or being ‘physically fit,’ but it is recognised as being ‘sometimes offensive’ meaning ‘free from or unaffected by physical disability’.
I have experienced its offence first-hand. As a type one diabetic, I technically fulfil its definition, not being affected by physical disability. My illness might be invisible, but it’s debilitating, nonetheless.
The phrase is increasingly marginalising non-physically disabled people like me.
Often, I’ve felt displaced from the community for my lack of physical impairment, and though I now understand that this is a very limited view of disability, I’ve felt as though I’m not disabled enough.
At 17, I was diagnosed with type one diabetes, an autoimmune condition in which the body wrongfully attacks the pancreas. Before my diagnosis, months of brain fog, unquenchable thirst, weight loss, and excessive tiredness led me to my GP for the second time – and I later was rushed to A&E.
I was told that I was lucky to be alive. After months of mysterious illness, receiving a diagnosis felt liberating. I had been convinced that my issues would never be solved, as my previous trips to the GP had proven unsuccessful. I was elated to have answers and I still count my blessings that, finally, one doctor managed to understand what was wrong before it was too late.
Now, I’m on an insulin pump and have a flash glucose monitor, which scans my sugar levels. As a result, my disability has become more visible to the outside world. But type one is a non-physical disability, in that it does not impact my mobility.
However, my type one diabetes does not make me feel ‘able-bodied’ and my lack of physical disability does not mean that society treats me favourably. Each time I’m stared at for the insulin pump on my leg or for my glucose monitor on my arm, I’m reminded of my illness.
In the UK, up to 70% of those who identify as disabled live with ‘hidden’ disabilities like diabetes, chronic pain, and mental health conditions.
We form a significant percentage of the disabled community, and yet, continue to be haunted by outdated terminology that actively harms us, by negating our status as disabled people.
Much of society fails to grasp the impact chronic illnesses present: my sleep is often so impaired by blood glucose fluctuations in the night that I come into work the next day feeling violated, and one waitressing job wouldn’t let me take proper breaks when I was experiencing low glucose episodes. During these moments, I didn’t feel any less disabled, for living with a non-physical disability.
When I was diagnosed, I didn’t know who to turn to for support, and with remarks made akin to ‘at least it’s not cancer’ by well-intentioned relatives, I felt even more invalidated, as though my struggle had to be more life-threatening for it to be real.
Type one diabetes is a greatly misunderstood condition, and this didn’t help matters when I was diagnosed. Many of my friends and family had never encountered someone living with type one: this is why greater visibility of diabetes is so important. One well-written character on TV or one well-researched article can work wonders for understanding at the point of diagnosis.
My disability might not be physical, but I’ve faced discrimination because of it.
Countless times, I have been stopped from entering bars or clubs with sugary snacks in my pockets despite my pleads of their necessity for my safety and wellbeing. Venues have taken bottles of fizzy drinks away from me, directing me to the bar which has been so far away that I have been worried my legs would fail me should I have needed to get down the steep stairs.
Clearly, ‘able-bodied’ is an increasingly redundant expression. Perhaps it might have been useful in a by-gone age to describe those facing physical impairment, but societal interpretations of disability have since become more inclusive.
Now, invisible illnesses, including mental health illnesses, are recognised as legitimate disabilities by UK legislation.
The sunflower lanyard allows people with hidden illnesses to signal their disability to others around them, and it has allowed increased visibility to invisible illnesses. I’ve finally felt valued reading the ‘not every disability is visible’ signs on public transport, not just on TfL but on local, national train services dotted around the home counties.
However, those living with physical disabilities are often interpreted as being ‘more disabled’ than those that live with an invisible illness, and terminology like ‘able-bodied’ only furthers this disparity.
I don’t doubt that the majority of those using the term are doing so without meaning to cause offence, but many in the disabled community agree that the wording is both exclusive and outdated.
The West of England Centre for Inclusive Living (WECIL) – an organisation dedicated to supporting disabled people – actively describe it as ‘discriminatory’.
Even as a disabled person, before I became involved with the wider disabled community, I had no idea that the term could even be construed as problematic.
On the surface, it appears a ‘woke’ and inclusive thing to say, perhaps acknowledging to an extent that disabled people are not always ‘able’ in the same way that non-disabled people are.
But I don’t feel very ‘able-bodied’ when my low blood glucose leaves me so debilitated that I can barely make it to the cupboard for some sugar, and I feel no more physically able when it rockets so high that my muscles begin to ache.
At this point, it does become physical, so where does the boundary lie? Living with type one diabetes, I’m no less disabled than someone with a physical disability.
In terms of revolutionising and updating our turns of phrase to more inclusive language, ‘non-disabled’ is the option I use, and gov.uk also suggests this, while actively advising against the use of ‘able-bodied.’
Going forward, I hope we can start meaningful conversations about the existing phraseology used in regard to disabled people. Let’s think before we speak. Perhaps ask yourself, ‘is it accurate?’, ‘is it constructive?’ And, most importantly, ‘is it inclusive?’
Let’s lay this damaging term to rest so we are all able to get on with our lives, without prejudice.
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