Five years ago, I gave a talk on Horatio Nelson, the British admiral who lost his right arm and the sight in his right eye in battle with the French — and then kept on returning to combat until he, one-handed, had burned, sunk, or otherwise destroyed Napoleon’s navy. That talk turned into a book dealing with the impact of a certain kind of physical impairment, one acquired suddenly through injury, and the various cultural meanings of “disability.” The issue interested me then even though I had no personal connection to it. As I was finishing the book, a fall on a rainy mountain near Seoul broke my right arm. The surgery that re-connected the broken pieces of bone with six screws and a titanium plate also created radial neuropathy: the radial nerve no longer signaled my fingers and thumb to extend. Asked whether I would ever again control my own right hand, my surgeon answered, “Probably.” Of course, being an academic, I then asked myself, “Is radial neuropathy a disability?” Defining “disability” is a fascinating intellectual project as well as a set of strategic choices with legal, political, and economic consequences. Sudden accidents foreground the fluid quality of disability as a category of identity, the variability of what falls within its blurry boundaries. All humans get sick and get hurt, and illness and injury grow more common as we grow older. How severe must a physical or mental impairment be before it is considered a disability? How long must it last? How do these judgments vary by time and place? Although drawing a clear line between “disabled” and “non-disabled” is helpful in some contexts, in others such a definition scapegoats one group of mortals for vulnerabilities we all share. It also cuts others off from insight gained by people who have lived with serious impairments for a long time. Anyone who slips on a mountainside or a sidewalk may benefit from the habit of thinking in terms of adaptation and accommodation rather than tragedy and isolation. The recent pandemic has reminded us all that to be human is to be vulnerable. We all have an interest in demanding a world that allows people with the greatest possible variety of bodies to find ways to get on with our lives.
November 30, 2020