“1 in 4 American has [an ordinary ability]”

Scrolling through my email and looking at messages from the Council for “D”-word Concerns at University of Michigan, I found this pretty amazing statistic: “One in 4 U.S. adults — 61 million Americans — have a [restricted ability] that impacts major life activities, according to a report in CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.” The report talks about the restricted abilities as mobility, cognition, hearing, vision, independent living, and self-care. I was fairly astonished to discover that many Americans, like myself, live with restricted abilities. Sixty-one million is a large portion of our population. Although roughly 25% of our nation has restricted abilities, I am unfamiliar with how they are referred to within their communities and I would like to know more.

I have the first-hand experience to make such drastic statements, as I am about to tell you.

I have noticed that the use of language and capability statuses were closely linked throughout history. People with restricted abilities should not be excluded from communicating and conversing with those without restricted abilities.

I am an individual with severe restricted abilities — — or, from my perspective, ordinary abilities.

Living with restricted abilities is ordinary for me, even though it may not appear ordinary to everyone else. Even some famous historical figures had ordinary abilities. Did you know Frida Kahlo had an ordinary ability? She had polio when she was young and spina bifida in her later years. Our greatest president, according to some, had one as well. Franklin Delano Roosevelt contracted polio in his early days. Leonardo Da Vinci, in addition, had an ordinary ability, likewise. He suffered from dyslexia. A contemporary celebrity of particular importance to me is John Hockenberry, a journalist, author, and four-time Emmy award winner. He became paraplegic from the chest down at 19 years old in a car accident. Personally, I had an accident at age nineteen that caused me to have an ordinary ability.

Why am I saying restricted and ordinary abilities? I do not like the “D”-word for several reasons. In addition to the “D”-word sounding antiquated, the prefix “dis-” is also problematic. In the English language, “dis-” has an inherently negative connotation meaning “not” or “deprived” as per Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Keeping the “D”-word in modern language perpetuates negative stereotypes of those with ordinary abilities today and diservices the legacies of those with ordinary abilities that came before us. For these reasons, I believe it is time to do away with the “D”-word and use new words surrounding the topic of ability because of all the stigmas surrounding people who are labeled or identified as someone with a “D”-word.

Thus, I am presenting you with my hashtag. The hashtag I am promoting, and I hope will gain traction, is #IAmOrdinary.

Here is a brief example of how social media was used as a mechanism to create and promote in-group unity. In 2002, social media became an outlet for social justice change. As Feng said in her article, “In defense of hashtag activism,” “…[T]he internet empower[ed] traditionally excluded people with the tools to create their own spaces for self-expression, movement-building, and grassroots-organizing.” The “excluded,” people who have been suppressed by others, have their own voice on the internet. The internet is a space for all people to use. Social justice movements were a booming business for internet service providers because they were becoming a popular trend. With everything that was developing at that time, it was an extremely exciting period. We need to take a page from them. Getting younger people involved in the Ordinary Ability fight would help matters tremendously and should be a top priority of our movement. Younger people are internet savvy and the hashtag would amass more recognition from its widespread usage.

A hashtag movement for people with ordinary abilities will be a unifying factor due to its common usage amongst internet users. The Twitter social media platform is single handedly responsible for the hashtag’s exposure from obscurity and the rise in its popularity. This is because, as Fang stated, “Twitter gives voice to all that [society] renders voiceless, whether inconvenient ideas and/or inconvenient people.” The voices of people with ordinary abilities are few and far between on social media. Even around the University of Michigan, all people related to ordinary abilities are “silo-ed, or standing alone like a barn silo.” The University of Michigan has a model that should be followed very closely because of their efforts in the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) campaign. The set up of the DEI campaign involves policy and structural approaches at the University. DEI is responsible for the embracement of minority groups. We may not be comfortable in the wake of the DEI campaign, but confronting our discomfort with these topics is an important step to forward progress.

I have direct experience in knowing that the language and meanings we attach to phrases have a lasting impact on the attitudes we create about the subjects of discussion. As a result, people can take offense or feel insulted by certain word choices, including “gimp,” “handicap,” and other words I will discuss later. In addition, modifying a phrase alters the underlying implication and shares a different meaning and context than the original phrasing.

The Ordinary Ability Rights fight is closely linked to the Civil Rights Movement. Grassroots efforts and other forms of activism for Civil Rights gained traction in the 1950s and has continued on each day. I anticipate my hashtag will help to gain popularity for the Ordinary Ability Rights fight. My hashtag will create space for the development of an online community of users to listen to and share stories about their own lives. My hashtag will normalize our differences. They will have comfort and support from each other. Ordinary abilities will be a topic of discussion, unlike how it is today. It will take some time to generate responses to my hashtag, but bare with me because it all has to start somewhere.

Despite the Americans with “D”-word Act (ADA) being written into law in 1992, many people with ordinary abilities are still not treated equally in modern American society. For instance, people with ordinary abilities are often seated in an area of a restaurant that is next to the kitchen or door. From the restaurant’s perspective, this is understandable; there is too much financial overhead required to have a space large enough to accommodate people with ordinary abilities at any seat in the restaurant compared to the intaken revenue. However, this does not mean these kitchen and door seats are as desirable as other places in the restaurant.

Similarly, Rosa Parks was frustrated by the preference given to white folks for the front seats on the buses. As Parks realized then, all persons, with or without ordinary abilities, need to be treated as equal regardless of the current status quo. In the recent decades, there have been many strides made in the Ordinary Abilities Rights fight, but there is still a long way to go. As the Civil Rights Movement has shown, nonviolent protest and activism appears to be the way forward for our movement.

However, the Ordinary Ability Rights movement currently faces a challenge with in-group unity, particularly in regards to self-identifying language. The debate between reclaiming “dis-” prefix words or using “dif-” prefix words is incendiary within our community, with historical pros and cons on both sides.

For example, 46,000 years ago, when mankind first crawled out of their caves, the Neanderthals ruled the earth. The Neanderthals buried the dead regardless of their ability status. How do we know this? One of the Neanderthals had cystic fibrosis. How inclusive is this?! Even one of the very first human beings had experienced an ordinary ability. Why could we all not get back to the Neanderthal way of thinking? I know; this sounds comical to write down. Is it just different modes of thought? Even the Neanderthals treated the member with cystic fibrosis the same. Why did we not learn about this when we learned about Neanderthals in elementary school? Is it because of the global repression that people with ordinary abilities have always faced until about sixty years ago.

In my experience, people have been very ignorant of the fact that I have these ordinary abilities. One problem I had was this Halloween, I tried going to The Rocky Horror Picture Show movie in the Michigan Theater, located in the downtown State Street area of Ann Arbor. The movie was incredible, but when my caregiver and I tried going to the after party at about 12:00 AM, we found it to be inaccessible to go into Necto. It is an eighteen-and-up club that many people frequently go to in Ann Arbor, right across the street from the Michigan Theater. Who would have thought that a guy with ordinary abilities would want to go there? Surely, not I. What a surprise to me that this would be a true Halloween show? It was a night complete with a truly frightening experience as well.

Another experience includes a cold snowy day. I had no idea about the relationship between the weather and what my day would turn out to be. One more of my caregivers and I had decided to go to Frita Batidos in the Main Street downtown area after we went to Literati bookstore. We were only a few blocks away. Little did I know that I would be in for a day full of hell. Who knew that coming to this college town would turn out to be so unwelcoming to me in those few instances? I do not mean all the people were mean and nasty, just some of the places were not accessible. As a matter of fact, the people of this University were some of the brightest stars in this place. I would have thought that at this great University, buildings would have been more accommodating to everyone’s needs.

First, we went to Literati. This was a little bookstore I had heard so much about. But, they had the most inconvenient aspect of the store. Literati only has stairs to go up to the second floor. My caregiver and I went back out into the cold, something which I did not want to do. It was freezing outside. Everybody else was up on the second floor and I was stuck down on the first floor. I was shocked and saddened by this blatant disregard of someone in a college town.

Secondly, my caregiver and I dined at Frita Batidos. When we got there, it was not accessible at all. They had to get a ramp out of their back room when my caregiver went in to ask them how I was going to get inside their restaurant. The two guys came out and told me to proceed up on this rickety ramp that looked like the old ramps they used to use at my therapy place; so how bad could that be?, I thought. The two guys even had to hold up the ramp so I could get into the restaurant. I do not recommend this to anyone, let alone someone in a 650-pound chair.

After we ate, it was time to go down that ramp which succeeded in holding my weight the first time. But, just wait. When coming down the ramp, I had to ask my caregiver to go down first and guide me. Upon going down the ramp, I had my life flash before my eyes. The guys were “helping” me down the ramp, which was an okay move I would have thought. However, the ramp slid out beneath me. For the first time in my life, I had a near death experience. I honestly thought I was going to die just then. I hit the ground so fast I thought I would for sure be in the street full of onrushing cars. Needless to say, I will never be going back there again. I did not know what to do in that circumstance. I can honestly say that was a first time ordeal. However, I came away from that situation a stronger person which I do not think many people could say.

There was one other time where I tried to go to Necto. It was on a Friday night in October of last year. My caregiver and I went into Necto and they were extremely nice and told me that they could walk my chair down to the club floor, to which I said, “I do not think you would want to carry down a 650-pound chair.” I can just imagine what it would have been like if they were to drop me down the entire flight of stairs. I never did get into Necto that night. We just went to Live, another bar on Main Street of downtown Ann Arbor.

I have always felt the safest on the bus, but even then I had some encounters that were frightening. On a cold night in November of last year, the bus driver had the gaul to roll on past me when they were approaching my stop. They did not want to take the time to strap me down inside the bus and chose to ignore me instead. It made me afraid of taking the regular bus at school; I take the Paratransit service all the time now or I wait from the hours of 7 to 8 pm when SafeRide comes into operation. The Paratransit service and SafeRide both operate out of the same bus, a special bus which I should not have to ride. I am like everybody else: I am ordinary.

I did not take the Blue Bus (University of Michigan bus) that December morning because I would have been a brave soul to be riding the bus at that hour, in the words of one of my counselors from the Services for Students with “D”-Word, SSD, office. The bus at that hour of the morning would have been so crowded and I did not want to attempt that. I have had many occurences where the bus drivers have slowed down and, once they saw it was me, they quickly turned their bus to “Not In Service” or gunned it away and onto the next bus stop. I did not want to experience that again. Most of my other caregivers and scribes said the same thing: “you would not want to go on the bus at that hour.” One of my note takers said, “the bus drivers’ only responsibility is to transport students around campus, so there is no reason why they should ignore any student, regardless of their abilities.” Maybe if the bus drivers were on time, they would do a better job with other people with ordinary abilities. However, the bus drivers were not the only problem on past rides.

The physicality of the buses and the social aspects of all the other students were problems as well. The buses were too narrow up at the front, which made it difficult to maneuver to the designated section for people with ordinary abilities. All of the other students were just staring at me and did not offer to help. In short, because of the experiences I had already this week, I did not want to go down that road again.

When thinking about bus routes, I found this little snippet by Judith Heumann about how many people it takes to stop a bus when they refuse to let a wheelchair-bound passenger board because of their wheelchair: “One… So what you have to do though is take your wheelchair sidel in the right place right in front of the steps and give it a little push underneath, and then their bus can’t move.” Maybe I kept this powerful woman’s advice because she has been around the block with the same type of problems that I am facing? Maybe we all could follow her advice? We should stop what we are doing so that when we see something wrong, we can know that we have done something about it instead of getting rolled over by the “man.”

I have compiled a list of questions you may ask when talking to a person with ordinary abilities. These inquiries are from my experiences with my ordinary abilities. I am sure that many people have concerns about how it is live with ordinary abilities, so this tidbit is to service the curious ones:

  • What is identity first language, IFL?

IFL is where the ordinary ability is identified to the person. It is like using “ordinary ability person.”

  • What is people first language, PFL?

PFL is where the person is identified to the ordinary ability. Think of it as if you were to say a “person with ordinary abilities” as opposed to the opposite. My preference for PFL stems from the idea that I am a person first.

  • Why is it important to ask the person, with whom you are talking, about IFL and PFL?

It is important to ask whoever you are talking with about IFL and PFL because not everybody subscribes to the same series. Case in point, many autistic people prefer the former whilst many different people with ordinary abilities favor the latter.

  • What are some great tips that one may want to consider when talking about a person with ordinary abilities?

My answer is in two parts. First, I would say that, at least for me, nothing is off limits. I do know many people with ordinary abilities that would counter that argument. It is primarily up to you and how comfortable you are asking the person with ordinary abilities such personal questions. Second, I want to give you some great resources:

  1. “An Introductory Guide to Disability Language and Empowerment.” Frequently Asked Questions, sudcc.syr.edu/LanguageGuide/.
  2. “Disability Etiquette & People First Language.” Tennessee Disability Pathfinder, cme.mc.vanderbilt.edu/sites/default/files/TennesseeDisabilityPathfinderDisabilityEtiquettePeopleFirstLanguage%2812811%29.pdf.
  3. Jtiner. “Inclusive Language | Unhandicap Your Language.” Student Disability Center, disabilitycenter.colostate.edu/awareness/inclusive-language/.
  • What role does the intersection of identities play in the world of ordinary abilities?

I went to a talk on October 30th where the panelists detailed the intersection of identities. In particular, my friend brought up the fact that he is a black man with ordinary abilities. This panelist believed that there was a connection between his ordinary abilities and LeBron James’s extraordinary abilities. LeBron James is a professional basketball player. The only difference between these two polar opposites is the fact that LeBron James can jump. My friend pointed out how they have had two drastically different paths in life and, yet, have the same general characteristics. I feel that this is a good representation of the intersection of identities between someone with ordinary abilities and someone without.

  • What are some words that should be avoided?

“D”-word

Someone “stuck” in their chair

Gimp

Handicap

  • What is a new word that you can use for disabilities?

Ordinary abilities

Restricted abilities

Varying abilities

A continuum of abilities

  • Why is “handicap” not a socially-acceptable word to use?

“Handicap” is not a socially-acceptable word you would use because in the old days many people with ordinary abilities were forced to beg on the street with their hands in their caps. This story has been corroborated by two professors at the University of Michigan that are and my own research on the topic.

  • Can the everyday person use “crip?”

No, that is because many people in our community, people with ordinary abilities, are attempting to reclaim the word. I am not saying whether I agree or not; it had been a sore subject for so long. “Crip” is only to be used by the community that is ordinary-abled.

A lack of unifying language indicates a lapse in group unity. We should be proud of possessing our ordinary abilities. To address this, I am proposing new language altogether: “ordinary ability” and the newest idea: #IAmOrdinary.

People with ordinary abilities demand to be seen as just “everyday people,” but in many cases they are not. These one in four Americans are not only a statistic, but they are also a community. We are here and we are proud. Together we sit: #IAmOrdinary.