Disability is not a medical problem
July 19, 2009
It happens constantly: I meet a person for the first time, I’m in my wheelchair, we introduce ourselves, and then the first thing that person wants to talk about is the medical aspects of my disability. They want to know when I was diagnosed, all about my medical routine, and then they want to sell me the nutritional supplement that they are just sure will be the product to cure me or make everything better or something.
When people first meet me, they don’t want to ask me about my career, my family, or my hobbies or activities. They don’t treat me as an interesting person with a wide variety of experiences, interests and skills. Instead they treat me as if the only thing I have going on in my life is my medical situation.
Why? It drives me insane.
This is part of a larger phenomenon: the tendency of our society to medicalize disability. The medical model of disability suggests that the most important aspect of life for a person with a disability is their medical treatment and how that person adjusts and adapts to that medical treatment.
It’s wrong. It’s totally wrong. But nevertheless, society continues to cling to this model. That’s why articles about disability always tend to wind up in the health section of every newspaper and magazine.
I once attended an annual camp for people with MS that had activities such as a high ropes course, rock climbing, rafting and horseback riding. It was an incredible experience. However, the woman who organized the whole thing didn’t have the time to manage it all. She needed help.
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Unfortunately, to get the help she needed, she chose to hook up with one of the big neurology practices that caters to people with MS. After they took over, they started to send nurses to the camp. They turned it into a medical experience. The participants were no longer athletes, vacationers and adventurers. They became patients. Again. I don’t need a nurse to follow me around everywhere I go. I don’t attend this camp anymore.
The other thing that drives me nuts is the medical supply companies that get involved with producing and selling handcycles. A handcycle is a bike for people with disabilities. But it’s a bike. What is a medical supply company doing selling a bike? A bike should be sold by a bike company. Just so you know, the handcycles sold by medical supply companies aren’t high-quality bikes.
Then there are the transportation services for people with disabilities which will only take their passengers to medical appointments. Can’t go to work. Can’t go to school. Can’t go grocery shopping. Can only go to the doctor.
It’s time to recognize that disability is not always a medical experience. The medical aspects of disability are not the defining aspects of disability. Throw out the medical model.
Instead, disability rights activists promote the socio-political model of disability. Disability is not a medical problem. Disability is a social and political problem. It’s not my medical status as a person with a disability that holds me back or gets in my way. It’s my social and political status as a person with a disability that holds me back and gets in my way.
The biggest problems for myself and other people with disabilities include difficulty obtaining meaningful employment despite having education and skills, being stuck as a result with an income below poverty level, difficulty accessing transportation services, and prejudicial attitudes.
The way I am treated by other people is a much bigger issue than my medical status.
Sandy Lahmann, a previous Frisco resident now temporarily lost on the Front Range, can be e-mailed at email@example.com.