In some ways, people with disabilities are just like everyone else. In some ways, we are very different. Both sides of that matter. Bad things happen when either is overlooked.
We are different from everyone else in that our bodies work differently. Most people have bodies that can do certain things. Our bodies can’t do all of the things that most other people can do. That matters. Being blind means something. Being d/Deaf means something. Having an intellectual disability means something. Being autistic means something. Having a mobility disability means something. Fatigue means something. Depression means something. The way we move, communicate, think, and perceive the world matters. Thinking about the differences created by our disabilities allows us to think about how to live with them — and live well with them. These differences do not need to be cause for alarm — we’re just people, and we’re part of the world, just like everyone else.
We are just like everyone else in that we are human beings. Our bodies are important. We experience pleasure. We have feelings. When people hurt us, we feel it, and it matters. Injustices against us are important, and we have the right to resist. We learn for our whole lives. If we survive to the age of adulthood, we become adults. When we wrong people, it matters. We are able to love. We can reciprocate relationships, consideration, and efforts. And any number of other things. Basically, we are people.
We are different from nondisabled people in that we can’t assume that we will be treated as equals in any context. Few, if any, spaces are designed with the assumption that we will be present, or that our presence is important. A school with a wonderful reputation for supportive friendliness may be aggressively, or subtly, hostile to students with disabilities. A movie theater may not bother to unlock the accessible doors, or may not have accessible doors at all. Airline policies may make travel impossible. People who say they are our friends may see us as charity projects, possibly with the encouragement of teachers or therapists. Or any number of other things. The daily toll of unmet access needs adds up, especially when the barriers are unnecessary, especially when they could be easily removed if anyone cared to do so.
We often can’t even assume that our humanity will be recognized. In our culture, we are surrounded by people who think that disability makes us less than human — sometimes even within disability community. Sometimes it’s subtle, and sometimes it’s blatant. Many of us grew up subjected to therapy that would have raised outcry if it had been done to a typically developing child. Any number of books and movies raise the question of whether death is better than disability.
Conversations about disabled people often do not include us, and often do not even recognize that we have perspectives of our own. When disabled people are murdered by caregivers, the murderers often get more sympathy than the victims. Ethicists with tenure debate whether disabled people ought to be allowed to be born, whether medical treatment for people with disabilities is a good use of resources, and whether we’re really people after all. And so on. The dehumanization adds up, too. Even when we are treated well, we live with the knowledge that people just like us are not.
We are fully human, and it is wrong to treat us as subhuman. In that sense, and many others, we are just like everyone else. We are also different. We are physically and cognitively different from other people, and those differences are important. We are also treated very differently from others, and that experience is important too. All of these things shape who we are, and the skills we need to live well. Glossing over disability does not serve us. We can get a lot further if we are matter of fact about all of this, and face these realities honestly.
Tl;dr People with disabilities are just like everyone else in some ways. We are different from everyone else in some ways. We are the same in that we are people. We are different in that our bodies work differently — and in that others treat us as subhuman. All of these things matter.