What is the Disability Paradox?

 19th Dec 2016

Paradoxes are infuriating things.

They derail perfectly reasonable sounding arguments with a crushing logic that, no matter which way you turn it, is utterly irrefutable.

However, they do exist and the Disabilities Paradox is no exception.

disability signSociety tends to take a sympathetic, even pitying view towards individuals with disabilities. We’ve all been walking down a street and overheard someone say ‘poor thing’ or ‘isn’t it a shame’ with regards to a person with a disability.

Whilst, on the surface at least, it may be a shame but there is an assumption that those people are in some way unhappy. Yes they have a disability and that does present challenges but – and this is where the paradox comes in – the majority of people with serious and persistent disabilities experience a good quality of life despite external assumption that they don’t.

So why does the paradox occur at all?

Humans are hardwired to look for familiarity. We like symmetry, similarities and order. This is why we naturally build communities, gravitating towards like minded individuals.

It’s that same trait that allows us to, at the very least, spot a fence post that hasn’t been evenly spaced with all the others.

By the same measure, as we enjoy our perception of normality, we find ‘abnormality’ unsettling and project our own anxieties on to others.

Our own sense of empathy causes us to try to relate to people with disabilities and we naturally focus on what we lose rather than what remains, or even gain. Our natural survival instincts kick in and we naturally feel an anxiety towards any of the challenges we see facing others.

It’s a natural response but makes it harder for those without disabilities to relate to those with disabilities as we are more likely to assume they are dissatisfied with their lot in life. Hence the paradox.

The best (and worst) thing about human genetics is that they subtly change to create near limitless combinations thus ensuring the survival of the species. The human genepool will never become a stagnant pond.

This does mean that there are some differences and some of those differences create challenges. Some of them minor, some of them major. But the assumption that those with disabilities are some how ‘less than’ is to misunderstand what disabilities are.

Disabilities do not apply to a person but a set of challenges that  the person faces when interacting with social and physical environments.

These challenges are further broken down into body functions and structures, participation and then further qualified by context.

There are two important factors to consider:

1. We incorrectly assume that people living without challenges are, by default, capable of doing or achieving anything. We also wrongly assume that whilst we may not want to do everything, we still have the option.

2. Our individual realities are formed purely by what we experience.

This second point is especially important as those it helps to explain why the Disabilities Paradox arises.

paralympic swimmer

The reason why people with disabilities consider themselves to have a good standard of living is because they live with those challenges and have adapted through hard work and with the help of technology, adaptations and specialist services, to live a full and happy life.

There are, of course, challenges beyond the obvious. Social situations and activities can throw up limitations or highlight differences between those with disabilities and those without which may cause negative feelings.

However this is arguably part of life in a diverse society where we regularly meet people we perceive to be more capable than we are, regardless of individual challenges or disabilities. Hiding away does nothing but suggest that people with disabilities are different rather than just faced with different challenges.

Encompass Dorset is leading charity supporting individuals with learning disabilities and enduring mental health issues in West Dorset. If you think we can support your or someone close to you, contact us today.

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