Ditching the qualifiers

What’s the point of describing ourselves or other people as being severely, mildly or moderately Disabled? Severity is such a subjective concept that it would be better for society if we stopped trying to quantify impairment. Guest blog post from Zara Todd.

Zara Todd in front of a window which has written on it "If you're always trying to be normal, you'll never know how amazing you can be" - Maya Angelou

This is a guest blog post from disability rights campaigner and activist Zara Todd

No I am not talking about Eurovision, although I do love it. As with most disabled people my life has been dogged with thresholds and categorisation and I’ve had enough. I have spent more of my life than is healthy contemplating: am I severely disabled? And I have concluded severity is such a subjective concept that it would be better for society if we stopped trying to quantify impairment.

I have no problem with impairment labels. If the person with the label finds it useful then all power to them, but can individuals really quantify their experience to others? I have recently seen a trend of people and media using impairment severity references to strengthen or dismiss the voice of disabled people and the precedent scares me.

My earliest memories are of my special school where many of my peers had multiple impairments and just staying alive required numerous interventions a day. I then became the first child in my local authority to be moved from a special school into a mainstream school and that’s when I first encountered the concept of severity across all the documents I was referred to as a severely disabled child and I remember protesting the term with my mum. As a child I did not feel severely disabled: I was just me, and yes there were things I couldn’t do or needed help with but I could operate in my inhospitable environment relatively well, where I knew that most of my special school peers would not have survived.

At the time I struggled with the concept of being severely disabled, partly because I didn’t like being disabled but also because I was able to do so much more than most of the disabled children I knew.’Severely disabled’ seemed like I was being limited or that people’s expectations were being lowered.

On reflection I can see that to my mainstream setting at the time I was severely disabled both in the barriers I experienced and the capacity and experience mainstream education had to meet my needs. However, that wasn’t the reason for my label. It came from a medical model and I presume was a reflection of my impairment in comparison to my non-disabled equivalent. However I could have easily internalised the severe label to give myself an inferiority complex or worse an embellished sense of entitlement.

Speaking to friends of mine who work in the medical field, any label to distinguish someone’s experience from that of a non-disabled peer is significant – it has to be to justify the diagnosis. What that means is even if your impairment is qualified by the words ‘mild’ or ‘moderate’, it is still definitely there and having an impact. So I feel that outside a medical intervention setting, qualifiers such as mild, moderate and severe serve purely as a means to perpetuate the hierarchy of impairment and exclusion.

When we as disabled people use qualifiers to articulate our experience who are we comparing ourselves to? As far as I can see all we are doing is giving non-disabled people permission to judge our experience and make assumptions that led to the deserving- and undeserving-disabled distinctions.

This undermines the social model of disability as it equates impairment with disablement by society, and these are not the same thing. Sometimes those with the ‘mildest’ impairments can experience the greatest disablement because, unlike others, they can actually get into the room to be discriminated against. Often, systems see their reasonable adjustments as optional extras rather than necessities.

I have met disabled people who describe themselves as severely disabled who have achieved physical or educational feats most non-disabled people couldn’t achieve, and people who describe themselves as mildly or not really disabled who are isolated and excluded from most societal measures of success because of the impact of disablement. So I concluded that qualifiers tell me no more than how the person views themselves or how they think society views them, which, while interesting, doesn’t help me understand them or their needs.