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Opinion: Looking at disability differently

KSL NewsRadio host Amanda Dickson with her daughter Laurel. (Amanda Dickson)

This is an editorial piece. An editorial, like a news article, is based on fact but also shares opinions. The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author and are not associated with our newsroom.

It was on this day, July 26th, in 1990 that then-President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act into law. Modeled after the Civil Rights Act, the ADA is an equal opportunity law for people with disabilities. I suppose I feel more emotionally invested than some in this topic because I have two children with disabilities. My oldest daughter has Down Syndrome and my youngest son has a condition called Noonan’s Syndrome.

I write today, 31 years after the passage of the ADA, to ask the question – what is a disability? I’m sure there are legal definitions for purposes of the law, like what kind of impairment would qualify for social security disability coverage, etc. But that’s not what I’m asking.

As I look at my children, their disabilities are visible, Laurel’s more so than Aiden’s–but they are visible. You can tell they might have trouble reading or speaking. You can see something in the shape of their eyes or their height that “looks off.” Other people may need a wheelchair or a service dog to get around. Their disabilities are similarly visible.

But what about the person who cannot forgive? Is that a disability? Or the person who cannot love with her whole heart? Cannot say “I love you” easily? Or the person who cannot hug without feeling pain? Are these disabilities? They certainly aren’t likely to be listed in any DSM, but I wonder if they prevent a whole life as much or more than some of my children’s disabilities.

Does a person who hurts others purposely, whether in word or deed, suffer from a disability as much as a person who struggles to read? I would argue “yes.”

As I’ve watched my five children learn and grow, there have been times when I’ve thought one or another of the three without a diagnosed disability were disabled, usually because they struggled to forgive or let go of resentment.

Laurel is not capable of resentment. She does not hold a grudge. She cannot hate. I can remember a few tense dinners when someone was mad at someone and you could cut the tension with a knife, and Laurel would say in her happiest tone, “So – how is everybody doing?” We had to crack up. We had to let go of our misplaced anger. How can I call such a talented human being disabled? And yet she is the one society considers less than.

I ask you to reconsider how you think of the word disabled. We all have abilities, and we all have disabilities. What are your yours? How can we engage more meaningfully with our disabled brothers and sisters? How can we learn to speak with them and not over them? I consider myself richly blessed by both Laurel and Aiden. I wish you could know them both. Their purity of spirit blesses my life in ways I’m sure I don’t deserve, but I will always cherish.