The Disabled 'Other'

The disabled is an other who easily could have been us. That notion, even if not fully conscious, stirs deep anxieties in the 'non-disabled,' more than any other 'other' does.

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International Day of Disabled Persons, on December 3, was proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in 1992. It aims to promote understanding about disabilities and to encourage the integration of disabled persons into all aspects of political, social, economic and cultural life. This year's theme, "E-Accessibility," stresses the importance of modern technology in facilitating such integration.

In Israel the day will be observed today. It must be stated, sadly, that the State of Israel still has a long way to go to meet acceptable standards on issues of accessibility for the disabled, both on very practical matters like ramps, elevators and sidewalks, which must be addressed by legislation and enforcement, and matters of red tape involving medical care and social security.

But beyond those practical and complicated issues, there is the broader issue of acceptance by "non-disabled" society. The UN opted to use the adjective "disabled," which implies that its subjects were once able and capable, but due to some misfortune lost some or all of their abilities. The UN did not use the once-politically correct term "challenged," possibly because by now it is accepted that we are all challenged in some way.

The "disabled" is another kind of "other" in a society that still has considerable difficulties in dealing with diversity. But the "disabled" is different from other "others." In most cases, we cannot know what it feels like or means to be an "other." This unknown may prompt one to be aware, tolerant, patient and open to the needs, sensitivities and complexes of others, like those with different skin colors (African Americans, Asians), ethnic backgrounds (Jews from Arab countries, the former Soviet Union, Ethiopia) or nationalities (Palestinians, Jews, Arabs, Israelis).

Even women and men are others to each other. A man cannot know what it is like to be a woman, and vice versa. That is why it is taken for granted that women are supposed to be from Venus and men from Mars, but at least neither is a minority, even if the struggle for equality rages on.

Unfortunately, to this very day, the common way of dealing with the "unknown" inherent in the other is transferring the fears he stirs within us, thus creating the xenophobia that leads to oppression and violence. In the realm of sexual identity, the other provokes even deeper fears, as it leads the heterosexual to question his sexual identity: Every one of us may be a latent homosexual. It is no coincidence that these fears deeply stir the religious: Faith, like heterosexual identity, can be eroded.

The disabled is an other who easily could have been us. If he is disabled by age, then we most certainly can be too. If the disability stems from genetic causes, then it does not threaten us directly, but if it is due to an accident or illness, it could have been - and still may be - our fate.

That notion, even if not fully conscious, stirs deep anxieties in the "non-disabled," more than any other "other" does. That is why "normal" society sometimes deals with the disabled by behaving like it is a matter purely of practical accessibility. When a disabled person tries to tell a "non-disabled" how he feels about it (and them), one of the most common responses offered is that he, the disabled, must accept himself as he is.

The truth is that the disabled have accepted it, whether they want to or not. Non-disabled society is wary of accepting them, because the matter is deeply frightening. It is society's problem as much as it is the disabled person's predicament. All society must do is admit to this deep-seated fear. That may be the first step.