At a college interview, I was asked, “What vegetable would you like to be?” My response of potato was weirdly appropriate and by the end of this entry, you will understand why.
The disabled community is composed of people with a myriad of conditions including those that are physical, psychological, behavioral, medical, or related to learning. Often these subgroups, and even contingencies within them, experience disability in differing ways. DISTINCTIONS such as when the condition was acquired, the social stigma attached to it, and whether the limitation is visually obvious become demarcations of major significance dividing the larger community. Controversy abounds none less polarizing than that made between physical disability and chronic illness. Possessing both within one curly-haired, 120 pound body, I have a unique perspective on their similarities, differences, and interplay.
Both chronic illness and disability can be described as conditions limiting two or more areas of life functioning. They must be taken into account when engaging in specific activities, alter how goals are achieved, and require accommodations. Furthermore, the non-disabled community’s reactions of pity, discomfort, and avoidance are mutual so both groups share the experience of being outsiders.
On the other hand, chronic illness is closely linked to the medical world since the condition is based upon health categorization. Within the disabled community, it is an accepted truth that group membership is a result of societal barriers not medical status. By declaring blindness a different way of functioning, it can be divorced from medicine whereas separating chronic fatigue from the medicinal seems impossible. In addition, accommodations can reduce physical disability to the level of nuisance while nothing can mitigate the impact of chronic pain or lack of energy.
Finally, the temporarily able bodied have a different understanding of health limitations as opposed to disabling conditions. Some argue TABS get chronic illness better and others argue TABS comprehend disability in a superior way. “I can’t see” is easier to identify with than “I have chronic fatigue.” On the other hand, illness is more easily accepted as a valid limitation not needing explanation whereas blindness often requires justification. “I can’t go out to the dance club” is easier to understand when the reason is chronic illness. Blindness requires additional explanation — the music volume is overwhelming making navigation impossible.
Personally – and I declare myself an expert in this—I find physical disability and chronic illness to share much and distinguish themselves from each other in only minor ways. While all the disparities I listed are valid, the matter of degree is small especially when compared to the differences both share in relation to the non-disabled. It’s russet versus red potato not spud versus biscuit.
For me there is one notable exception– the question of a cure. If offered sight, I’d shrug and suggest it be offered to someone who had a stronger reaction than “whatever.” However, if somebody could wave a magic wand and chronic fatigue would vanish, I’d ask where to sign up. It boils down to the issue of accommodation. No matter how hard I try or what techniques I employ, chronic illness will always limit my ability to accomplish things. Blindness means I cannot drive a car, become a pilot, or be a brain surgeon. Chronic fatigue means I cannot have a career that requires a 9 to 5 kind of life. In this way, it’s white or sweet potato versus biscuit.
I find it crazy-making when these two “groups” attempt to distinguish themselves from each other. It reeks of the same flawed thinking that TABs use to separate themselves from disabled folks. It also plays right into the hands of power politics because we are so busy asserting our differences that we neglect the more significant battle for political currency. Politicians offer us a pie and the various disability factions fight over the size of everyone’s wedge instead of demanding a bigger pie. Far better to find our common ground and stand upon it united against those who would malign the spud.
Rather than debating the merits of red versus white, boiled versus baked, I wish we, the disabled community, would focus on bigger issues like negative stereotypes, ignorance, and whatever causes TABs to think of us as a different species. After all, potatoes and biscuits are both carbohydrates and there is such a thing as a sweet potato biscuit, right?