A while back, I was consulting with an acquaintance about my desire to fulfill a need I have seen in the disability community -- in this case, the need for an online career resource for people with disabilities.
The person with whom I was discussing the idea, a person with a chronic illness and an expert in assisting persons with chronic illness achieve their career goals, gave me some very valuable advice, but also added this: "I think you really need to separate disability and chronic illness on this website. They are very different. Honestly, do you consider yourself disabled if you have a chronic illness? I don't."
With all due respect my acquaintance, I not only use the label "disability" along with "chronic illness," I encourage others to do so as well. Despite the fact that persons with disabilities or chronic illnesses (or both) make up the largest minority in the country and the world, we are so fragmented that we have far less recognition as a social justice movement than any other marginalized identity. The disability rights movement needs unity. Behind unity, there is power.
I didn't always identify as having a disability, not because I rejected the label, but because I was ignorant of the fact that it applied to me. When I was diagnosed at the age of 15, it was a shock to adjust to the presence of illness in my life. I remember obsessing over the new labels that applied to me. "Crohn's Disease. Disease. Chronic illness. Sick." While I got used to the labels over the years, I never really liked the idea of sickness or illness as a label. It was very present in my life, but I didn't like the ring to it. It made me feel weak and like I should be pitied.
Although I received accommodations from the disability services center throughout college, I didn't really start applying the label "disability" until my senior year, when I qualified for the Workforce Recruitment Program, a federal program that works with colleges to help students with disabilities get internships and jobs within the government. I looked at the ADA definition of the term: "a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity."
I immediately recognized my qualification under the term. Crohn's Disease has limited many major life activities at different times: the ability to eat, the ability to walk longer than the shortest distances. With this new word in my lexicon, I started unconsciously using it interchangeably. This became even more prominent when I realized how hard it is to get a job if you have any sort of medical issue, then began researching disability rights, and then when I found my passion and life goal of promoting the disability community. In discovering disability activism, I also found a very empowered community of people who use a seemingly negative label in a positive way.
As someone with a chronic illness, I sometimes still feel like I'm out of place, not because the disability movement hasn't accepted me, but because many others with chronic illnesses reject the label, despite getting short-term or long-term disability insurance, ending up in the hospital, or experiencing discrimination for their illness. While I respect anybody's right to use whatever label they choose, I feel like detaching oneself from the disability rights movement does more harm than good to our goals.
The disability movement is already fragmented by the fact that our identity is not homogenous. Unlike race and gender, which generally have to do with a limited number of subcategories, disability is made up of millions of known conditions, as well as medical issues that haven't been diagnosed or identified.
There is a remarkable diversity in the movement, from diagnoses to disease- or disability-specific organizations, to the challenges we face. As someone with Crohn's Disease, I can never truly understand what someone with a vision impairment or a wheelchair user faces in terms of challenges or discrimination, because I have not experienced it. The argument of my chronic illness expert acquaintance is goes along this path: with disability encompassing so many different identities, wouldn't it be better to scale down and focus on what I've experienced and the people similar to me?
I see it a different way: instead of interpreting our diversity as a weakness, we should see it as a strength. I have connected with advocates with mental illness, mobility issues, chronic illness, and other challenges, and while they all face different specific challenges, we have all found common themes and ways to connect. We all face the challenge of adapting to a society in which we aren't considered "normal." We can all relate to the frustrations of being seen in a negative light. We are open to welcoming other peoples' experiences and exploring their ideas. And most importantly, we are all passionate about achieving equality for the disability community.
Instead of seeing the difference of disability as a divisive issue, we should see it as a way to expand past our own experiences to learn about the challenges that others face, connect with them on those issues, and work to address them together. This is something I never would have realized if I stayed in the bubble of Crohn's Disease or chronic illness. While the challenges I learn about aren't always ones I will have experience with or will ever experience, I can learn about how to help others facing disability challenges and hopefully help them to make a positive impact that will advance not only the goals for people with similar challenges, but for the whole disability movement.
Whether it's accessibility, breaking down mental health stigma, or advancing the interests of Crohnies like myself, working to break down these obstacles together brings a unity to the disability rights movement that is empowering. Instead of fragmenting down the lines of diagnoses and labels, we need to work together to achieve the goals of the disability movement.