When I first acquired a disability almost 18 years ago it was a situation of great irony. I had worked on behalf of people with disabilities for many years, as a proactive program director, an advocate, and author of a book on empowerment for people with disabilities. So, was there a message from the universe in all of this? Possibly. I know this – I still believe in the principles of empowerment now just as much as I did then.
Empowerment is one of “those words”. We hear it a lot – we see it in articles just like this one. Still, how often do we actually sit back and think about what it really means? The ways in which ‘disability’ is created and taken up as a subject position/category in my society (and others) is of prime importance to me, as is who has the power to authorize, create and legitimize its meanings. My own agenda is mainly a concern with and interest in the creation of the subject position called ‘disabled’. It is an extremely contentious term as are many other terms used in connection with it, such as handicapped, impaired, etc. If there is to be a meaningful dialogue on disability and empowerment, then people (you the reader) will want to know where I’m coming from and why I feel the need to write these articles at this particular time.
For 18 years I lived with my condition which is known as Thoracic Outlet Syndrome. The onset of the condition was frightening to say the least. My left arm became paralyzed and remained that way for almost 8 months until an x-ray pointed out the problem. Surgery corrected it – for the most part. TOC doesn’t get cured but it’s manageable. Doctors and therapists taught me to manage my condition. And I did. But over a year ago my low back (which has been troublesome over the years) became much worse until the doctor diagnosed me with Degenerative Arthritis in my spine. Okay – so another condition to manage. Why do I take the time to share this history? If I didn’t, my philosophy and beliefs about empowerment wouldn’t mean very much at all.
For me, empowerment is both an individual and group act. Individuals empower themselves by taking responsibility – for who we are and how we are. In no way does this imply we’re not allowed to have our ‘poor me’ moments. Let’s face it; we all do. Yet, when we live in an empowered space, these do not become the focus of our life. At the core of empowerment is the word power. It is our ability and our willingness to recognize the power we have in our own lives each and every day. From my perspective this power is the choices we make. Nothing in this world defines us more than the choices we make each and every day. Do we thank the person who served us coffee this morning? Did we open the door for someone who walks more slowly than we do?
In this age of warp-speed information and instant gratification via the Internet, nothing speaks so powerfully to me than using our choices to empower ourselves as individuals, as communities and as countries. The connection between this and ‘disability’ is an integral one which speaks to the kinds of lives we wish to live, and the types of societies we aspire to build. People with disabilities have it within themselves to be the designers of their own reality just as anyone else does – in theory. In reality, we still live in a highly inequitable and inaccessible world. All buildings are not barrier-free. All public spaces don’t have information in alternative formats. People from the Deaf Culture are often highly excluded by reason of the fact that they speak a visual rather than an oral language. People with intellectual disabilities are often stigmatized as are people with mental health issues. It’s okay for someone to inject insulin for their diabetes, but people who have to take medication for bipolar disorder are somehow ‘less than’ equal in the larger picture.
It’s true – we live in a world of inequalities. They’re everywhere. Empowerment is about tearing them down – changing the discourse – bringing the issues to light – advocacy and awareness – the awesomeness of education. These are the tools of social change for individuals, communities, countries and the world at large. That is the space of disability and empowerment. More to come in future weeks.
With thoughtfulness and understanding,
Ilanna Sharon Mandel
Woman with a walker photo available from Shutterstock