When I first came across the term “differently abled”, I thought of it as a euphemism. One that trivialized the challenges disabled people faced, which could prevent them from getting the care they need. However, the work of two psychologists have pointed out to me how the word “disabled” undermines human resilience.
All of us have what Dan Gilbert calls a psychological immune system that helps us sees the gravest of setbacks in a positive light. He points us to research that indicates how paraplegics regress to a earlier levels of happiness a year after their tragedies. In prospect, we all fear an accident that can leave us without one of our precious limbs. In retrospect, our minds are powerful enough to bounce back for the most part.
Another psychologist, Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi, points out how several disabled people perceive their tragedies as being both the most negative and the most positive events in their lives. He cites the surprising findings of several studies, where different victims bounce back from losing their limbs, losing their vision and becoming paralyzed. While disability limits what people can do, its constraints can sometimes bring about order and focus to people who otherwise felt that they were wasting away their lives. In the face of constraints, however bad, our mind can respond positively.
These findings surprise us because of two things we underestimate – our mental resilience, and the benefit of constraints in giving us clarity – both of which differently abled people teach us how to better appreciate.
I do not seek, in any manner, to trivialize the challenges that the differently abled face. It is our duty to ensure that we build an inclusive world, where they are provided with access to what all of us have. At the same time, the term “disabled” brings with it a touch of arrogance and condescension. In the process, it undermines what we can learn from the differently abled people around us.