By Kristen Williams

As a person who lives with a visible, hard-to-ignore disability, I have a theory on disability. It’s not a popular one, mostly because people tend to squirm whenever the word disability is dropped.

But here it is nonetheless: people are scared of disability because it reflects their own fragility.

People generally pity-smile, look away, or gawk at disabled people out of fear. In some places, we are still locked away, house-bound, or killed for existing. Humanity does not know what to do with disabled people, and I believe personal fear is to blame.

Cultural beliefs and media sources also tell us how to feel about disability. And where do those messages come from? An individual, and eventually collective, fear of fragility. People look at disabled bodies, in all their variation, and see a spectrum of human vulnerabilities that they don’t want to be impacted by personally.

Illustration: Megan McLaughlin
People are scared of disability because it reflects their own fragility.

The idea that disability is very human and can happen to anyone, even you, is almost unbearable for many people. (One-in-seven of us are living with a disability, according to Statistics Canada, and one-in-three workers will experience a period of disability lasting longer than 90 days.)

To cope with this terrible fear, society has turned disability upside down and made it monstrous. As far from human as it gets, disability is portrayed as a symptom of villains and bad guys, people that ‘had disability coming to them.’

For proof of this, look only as far as superhero movies, whereby characters associated with darkness and fear have deformities and use assistive devices like canes – and as such, are no longer seen as valid parts of humanity. (Where do you think the word invalid comes from?)

Our collective fear of our own fragility has us constantly widening the gap between disabled people and that which is human. It’s the motivator behind the demonizing of disability.

The issue with this is that disability is actually quite natural and pointless to fear. Many living things experience a spectrum of ability – humans, dogs with three legs, cats with missing eyeballs, the whole lot.

As we grow and change, and with the development of technology, more and more people with disabilities are surviving (some would even say thriving). Some (inherited) disabilities are the inevitable result of genetic variation, while others (acquired) follow from being fragile beings in a sometimes-dangerous world.

You could say that disability is a natural side-effect of human trial-and-error.

Disability ranges almost infinitely in kind and severity. It is as variable as the people that carry it and as diverse as life itself, but we’ve villainized it, to our own detriment.

Acknowledging the fear of fragility that is behind every disability-related-prejudice, every ableist comment, is the initial step in dismantling it. Realizing that disability is a natural and acceptable way to exist – not something to be deathly afraid of, is a great, and deeply necessary start.

Deconstructing it further, and finding ways to validate those that live with disability also combats fear-related disability discrimination. These are steps towards ridding ableism, through understanding its root, and engaging with our humanity.

As far as take-aways go, take comfort in knowing that if you fear disability, you’re not alone. Everyone has some discomfort with it, because it’s branded as unnatural and, well, scary.

But, as is good practice with any overwhelming emotion, I encourage you to sit with it. Feel it. And try to assess the areas where it limits your perspective and support toward people with disabilities.

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