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It's Complicated

People often use more than one framework at a time when thinking about disability but it’s more complicated than that.

moon astronauts color photograph disability history america

There are several familiar, traditional ways of understanding difference. Sometimes difference leads to stigma; other times difference is valued. People may avoid the label of disability at all costs or embrace it. People who are different in similar ways may not equally identify themselves as having a disability. The same person who typically functions well in one situation may not in another. The lines drawn around disability through words, laws, and customs are largely arbitrary and situational.

People have heated opinions about whether such things as addiction, epilepsy, obesity, hemophilia, attention deficit disorder, dyslexia, intersex, and cancer constitute disabilities. Singling out people who are different often depends on their wealth, race, power, talent, and even location. Baseball great Mickey Mantle broke a bone and used a wheelchair. First lady Betty Ford was addicted to painkillers. Boxing legend Muhammad Ali has Parkinson’s disease. Actor James Earl Jones stuttered. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had polio (learn more about polio). Scientific genius Albert Einstein had dyslexia. Tennis champion Arthur Ashe had AIDS. It’s complicated.