The U.S. Census Bureau says there are 54 million Americans with disabilities. It's a number I refer to fairly frequently and a number that sometimes raises eyebrows, not to mention questions.
How can there be so many? Who are these people, anyway?
Disability is defined by law as the limitation or lack of an essential daily life function. These would include, but aren't limited to, walking, seeing, hearing, breathing and thinking; and various others have been identified on a case-by-case basis.
How many times have you looked at a disability parking space, seen a guy jump out of a car to run into the store and murmur bad words aloud or to yourself about what a charlatan he is? Sometimes, of course, the people pulling into those designated spaces are frauds. Sometimes not.
Maybe Grandma had that guy run some errands for her in 2004 and gave him her "Handicapped Parking" placard to speed things up a bit. Well, in the first place, he shouldn't have been using that privilege if Grandma wasn't even in the car.
The purpose behind the designated spaces is to facilitate getting from Point A (the car) to Point B (the building) for someone who has trouble navigating the usual distance due to, say, the lack or limitation of walking, seeing, hearing, breathing or thinking.
Then Grandma died, and he still had that placard and, oh well, it doesn't expire until 2008, so he might as well use it. Or maybe he even thinks he's entitled to use it because he was such a nice guy in Grandma's final days.
But sometimes those people you think are faking it in the disability parking spaces or shorter lines at Disneyworld aren't faking it at all. A large percentage of those 54 million have disabilities that can't be seen by the casual observer.
Here are just a few.
· Hearing: There are an estimated 28 million Americans with some type of hearing loss. While probably less than a million are profoundly deaf — thus giving others some visual clue because they speak in sign language or otherwise indicate that communication needs to be more visual than aural — the rest of those in this group have a disability that is pretty much invisible. Some, of course, wear hearing aids, which you might or might not notice; but, for the most part, hearing impairment is an unseen disability.
· Breathing: People with chronic asthma, emphysema or other lung diseases don't generally wear signs indicating their breathing difficulties, but the reality is that a chronic breathing disorder can be more debilitating in given situations than many more obvious limitations. Put a chronic asthmatic and an amputee-turned athlete side by side in a foot race, and it's not rocket science to figure out which one will win. Furthermore, the runner with asthma could literally die trying.
· Learning: While the news is still spreading to some sectors that a person with a learning disability is not, as once believed, an individual with limited intellectual capacity, many are still inclined to keep their invisible disability a secret. People with severe learning disabilities have become successful physicians, scientists, educators and founders of Fortune 500 companies. But dyslexia or any of its close relatives can definitely limit ordinary life activities. You need work-arounds to accomplish ordinary tasks — which is my personal definition of any disability — and you sometimes need extra accommodations. You can't tell a person has a learning disability by looking at her.
While these are the most prevalent among invisible disabilities, there are plenty more that you can't spot at a glance. Diabetics don't wear badges or carry noticeable adaptive equipment to accommodate the disability, but the disease definitely requires special accommodations and places limitations on a major life activity — such as eating.
People with chronic fatigue syndrome, heart disease, back injury and a host of conditions compromising the auto-immune system can sit beside you at the movies or serve your aloo mater at your favorite restaurant without your ever suspecting that this is a person with a disability.
Then there is the whole collection of disabilities related to cognitive functioning and/or mental health: attention deficit disorder, depression, bipolar disorder and a whole slew of other labels might well be affixed to people you see regularly at work, at church or dancing along with Jimmy Buffett.
Sure, disabilities run the gamut from mild to severe, and some require far more adaptations than others. The point is at least one in five among us has some sort of disability. You might be one of them. If you're reading this in a place where there are at least four other people, chances are pretty good that at least one of them has a disability.
When you think about the size of the whole minority, maybe it will be a bit easier to let go of the old "us and them" kind of thinking and realize that accepting people with disabilities as equals could — and probably someday will — mean accepting yourself.