International Day for Disabled Persons – 3 Dec 2020

Today is the UN International Day of the Disabled Person.  I suspect that most people don’t know and don’t care. 

The problem with innumerable advocacy movements clamouring for attention and highlighting their specific cause with special months and days is that these calendar reminders have come to mean little to those outside their immediate cause.  A UN day of observation likely carries a bit more gravitas.  But I suspect that most of my friends and colleagues, even those who focus on social justice, remain unaware of the International Day of the Disabled Person.  Even if they were to notice that today acts to raise awareness of the presence of disabled individuals in our midst and of the particular forms of discrimination they face, few would be able to detail anything beyond a generalized support for ‘accessibility’ or ‘universal design.’  They would not be aware that almost ¼ the US population now identifies as disabled.  Elsewhere, the proportion of people who claim disability as an identity also steadily increases.  A friend, who teaches a class about disability politics, canvases his students at the beginning of each semester about their ties to disability.  He discovers every year that over half disclose that they themselves or, someone close to them, is disabled.  Given this prevalence, one would think that disability equality and rights would claim a greater profile than they do. 

Even as I carry out research on disability justice and, try to encourage conventional and scholarly awareness of systemic and systematic barriers that disabled people encounter across multiple jurisdictions and cultures, I wonder why humans tend to disavow the needs of the disabled.  I‘ve thought about this for many years and I’ve come to suspect that we turn away from images and ideas that make us feel vulnerable. The unfamiliar makes us uncomfortable but when the unfamiliar reminds us that we are morbid and mortal creatures, perhaps we reflexively turn away from it.  A physical, sensory, cognitive or emotional impairment suggests a deviation from the norm that insinuates that we might be potentially less capable than others.  Much like injured animals who mask their pain, humans may find it easier to overtly deny their own impairments and those of others.  And, many disabilities are “invisible” and thus simple to disown.  Afterall, who wants to be known for seeming incapacity?  

Perhaps it is instinctive? 

But, I’ve come to realize: so what, if it is instinctive.

Isn’t the point of the social endeavour of community is that we come together because we are better as a collective than we ever were alone?  By gathering as one society, creating institutions and rules to nurture and govern us, we’ve built remarkable forms: agriculture, cities, artwork, literature, laws . . . . the list is vast.  In coming together we’ve tamed some of our instinctive impulses and channeled our more basic energies into a world that does remarkable things – the latest of which is the worldwide effort to contain and then create vaccines against COVID19.  SARS COV2 is a naturally occurring, wild virus that has unleashed an existential threat.  While we’ve not vanquished it yet, there are glimmers that our collective action will tame its menace.

And so too, despite what might be instinct, we can collectively tame our reflexive uneasiness with disability.  We can confront that which makes us uncomfortable.  The very essence of the collective project of society is that it makes us better humans. . . . and turning our gaze towards our companions with impairments not only makes us better, conscious beings by embracing those whom we fear, it also allows our overall community to benefit from the sheer capacity and ingenuity of disabled individuals which currently lie largely dormant and untapped by the rest of humanity.

Let’s not only notice the UN International Day of the Disabled Person, but try to bring others into our fold of awareness and action, because we ALL can only be improved by this effort.

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