Defining Disability

Do I have a disability?

It depends on when you ask.

If I am alone at home with no noise except my breathing and quiet tapping on the computer keyboard, and I’m wearing my hearing aid and cochlear implant, then No, I don’t. Or at least I don’t perceive the disability. If the phone rings and the captioning service works, then No, I don’t. If I join a Zoom meeting that’s captioned, No, I don’t. If I’m watching TV with captions, No, I don’t.

TV Captions

That doesn’t make me a person without a disability. It just makes me feel like one.

Under the ADA, there’s no question about my status. “An individual with a disability is defined by the ADA as a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment.”

The accommodations I describe  – a quiet home, hearing aid and cochlear implant, captions on my phone, captioned Zoom meetings and TV – alleviate the hearing deficit to the point that I forget I have it. And that’s what we aim to do when we advocate for accommodations in the outside world.

These accommodations allow me to participate in the ADA’s “major life activities.” But not entirely, and this is why I am a person with a disability. With hearing loss as severe as mine, accommodations don’t cure or reverse the disability. They lessen the struggle. They mitigate it. But they don’t make it go away.

For those with less severe hearing loss, which is the vast majority of people who self-identify as having hearing difficulties, accommodations don’t just alleviate but may eliminate the disability. If you have mild to moderate hearing loss, you might have trouble hearing in a restaurant. Accommodations in a restaurant can be something as simple as a corner table, carpeting, acoustic tiles or other noise absorbers, tables spaced farther apart. We don’t think of them as accommodations but they are. They make a built environment compatible for people who might otherwise not be able to participate. In this case accommodations don’t just alleviate the disability, they may make it disappear.

Sometimes accommodations aggravate the disability. I’d put movie-theater cupholder captioning screens in this category. They are so awkward to use, and so often mistakenly programmed, that they simply remind me that I can’t hear the movie. If all movies had open captions along the bottom of the screen, that would be an accommodation that would allow me to forget my disability.

Do I have a disability? Yes.

Am I disabled? No, because accommodations allow me to function. Without accommodations I would be disabled – I AM disabled. But only temporarily.

The “people first” preference for disabilities is correct not only in the sense we usually use it – I am a person first, and my disability is a part of me. But it is also correct because this disability I have isn’t always disabling. So it shouldn’t define me.

I welcome comments on accommodations that make you forget you have a disability, as well as accommodations that just make it harder.

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For more about living with hearing loss, read my books at Amazon.com.Smart Hearing is a guide to everything about hearing loss. Shouting Won’t Help is my personal story of loss and renewal. Both are available in paperback and on Kindle. Available only at Amazon.com unless you can persuade your local bookstore to order one for you.

3 thoughts on “Defining Disability

  1. Thank you, Katherine. This is a useful distinction. Any venue that provides some kind of loop system, preferably around the room, but alternatively around my neck takes away any sense of being handicapped. The same kind of venue that offers me earphones makes me more handicapped as they don’t work with my binaural CI’s.

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  2. Sometimes accommodations aggravate the disability.

    I so heartily agree regarding trying to hear in movies. I have given up on movies in movie theaters. Your mentioning the cup holders brought it all back.

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