The Disability Alphabet: B Is For ...

Disability Thinking: The Disability Alphabet

This is only the second entry in this series and already I’m worried the whole thing is too dull and pedantic. Mapping out the definitions of words and adding my own opinions on what exactly they mean and how they are used? It’s not very entertaining or even particularly uplifting is it?

I’m going to keep at it anyway.

My goal is that by the end of this series, a curious newcomer to disability issues and thought will be able to go through this “Disability Alphabet” and gain a basic knowledge and some insight into the issues we struggle with in the disability community. In short, I hope this will be useful to people. That’s about all. Some weeks, the words will be interesting and spark some real thinking and discussion. Others, like this week, they will be pretty straightforward,

B is for … with picture of a “B” Scrabble tile

Barriers

Definitions

Dictionary.com:

  1. anything built or serving to bar passage, as a railing, fence, or the like

  2. any natural bar or obstacle

  3. anything that restrains or obstructs progress, access, etc.

  4. a limit or boundary of any kind

Wikipedia:

“A barrier or barricade is a physical structure which blocks or impedes something.”

Common Uses

In the disability context, “Barriers” functions as a replacement for “problems” or “struggles” ... the things that make disabled live difficult or unpleasant. But it places those problems outside the disabled person. It’s not the disability we are referring to, or personal weaknesses. A barrier is a thing over there that is in our way.

Problems and Misunderstandings

I’m not aware of any confusion over the word “Barriers.” It seems like a very effective word that immediately conveys the idea it’s meant to communicate.

Suggestions

“Barriers” aren’t only physical impediments. Ableism is a “Barrier” too, especially when it influences people’s ideas and actions. Disability discrimination is a “Barrier.” So are harmful laws and practices. And of course beliefs and social habits of people we meet can be “Barriers” if they negatively affect how we feel about ourselves, or poison our everyday social interactions.

“Barriers” is one of my favorite disability words It encompasses so much about the disability experience, and in a very particular and deliberate way. We can’t talk properly about disability without it.

Benefits

Definitions

Dictionary.com:

  1. something that is advantageous or good; an advantage

  2. a payment or gift, as one made to help someone or given by an employer, an insurance company, or a public agency

Wikipedia:

“Benefit (social welfare), provided by a social welfare program.”

“Health benefits (insurance), insurance against medical expenses.”

Common Uses

For most disabled people, “Benefits” typically refers to some combination of government-funded financial supports for either specialized medical or disability-related services, or regular income support for everyday expenses. In the USA, most disabled people deal with a confusing patchwork of generic and disability-specific “Benefits” that we both depend on for independence, and at the same time find ourselves limited by because of their often outdated eligibility requirements. Some of us are desperate to obtain benefits, while others of us can’t wait to get off them. Most of us exist somewhere in between.

Problems and Misunderstandings

Meanwhile, relatively few non-disabled people have anything close to a clear understanding of what “Benefits” mean for disabled people. Some assume that we are all just automatically eligible for generous “Benefits,” and don’t really have any major financial needs. Others look at benefits as meager and pitiable, and possibly shameful.. Their judgment of disabled people is negative because they view the “Benefits” they assume we all get negatively. Some people’s attitudes towards “Benefits” hinge entirely on whether they are perceived as having been “earned,” (like Social Security,) or simply granted as a kind of “welfare,” like Medicaid or Food Stamps.

There is also the perception in certain policy and ideological circles that our “Benefits,” often dubbed “entitlements,” are incredibly expensive and economically unsustainable for society in the long term. And alongside this, there’s usually a suspicion … sometimes an obsession … with the idea of benefits fraud, of people somehow faking or exaggerating their disabilities in order to cheat “the system.”

Clearly, “Benefits” means different things to different people. And the way people talk about “Benefits” says quite a lot about how they view disability and disabled people.

Suggestions

I don’t think the term itself is particularly misused, However, I do wonder whether there isn’t a better term for the systems that help us achieve and maintain independent lives, Maybe “Supports” is a better term?

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