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Apr. 7th, 2016

I have recently become secretary for a group on which board of directors I serve. I’d say I don’t quite know how it happened but I know exactly how it happened. The board leadership changed at the start of the year. For the January meeting, the outgoing secretary continued to take minutes as there were not enough board members present to hold elections. The February meeting, there was a general group meeting before the board meeting, and the outgoing secretary was not present. The president asked if someone would take minutes until the board had a chance to meet. Since I already had an e-mail open to take notes, I offered. What happened next was inevitable. The board met, the president asked for nominations for secretary, someone nominated me, I said I didn’t have time but neither did anyone else so sure, and I was elected by acclamation.

What cracks me up is that I was able to be secretary at all.

For years, whenever I was in a situation where someone was asked to take notes for a group, I couldn’t. There was no way. I couldn’t (can’t) write on a blackboard. I could barely write on a whiteboard. I can marginally write on an overhead projector. My legibility limit with pen on paper is five sentences, with effort.

I have a handwriting disability and taking notes required handwriting.

I couldn’t possibly be the one to take notes.

My group meets by telephone monthly and in person/telelink annually. I always have a computer with me. I can take notes in an e-mail and mail it to myself. Then I can transfer them to a word processing document, tidy them up and e-mail them to other people.

I am ideally suited to be the one to take notes.

How I went from being unable to do something to being an excellent candidate to do the same thing is yet another classic demonstration of the social model of disability.

When people typically think about disability, they frame it around the thing the person can’t do. And the obvious problem is that the person can’t do the thing. And the best solution would be for the person to be able to do the thing, through medication or therapy or surgery. If those solutions don’t work, the person continues to have a disability.

Disability scholars call that the medical model of disability. Most medical people, who have never heard of the medical model, call it reality.

Under the medical model, my ability to take notes or not take notes relates directly to my hand strength and motor control, which hasn’t changed appreciably in years. The things I couldn’t do when first assessed at age 9, I still can’t do 30 years later.

But disability isn’t as simple as not being able to do things. All people have things they can’t do. Not everyone can play professional basketball, but no one calls that inability a “disability.” The society in which I was a sixth grader does expect sixth graders to be able to dribble and throw a basketball and to understand some of the basic principles of the game.

Sometimes, in a snarky mood, I define disability as the inability to do something society generally expects people to be able to do. And further clarify that inability includes not just outright inability, but also the inability to do the thing as well, or as reliably, or as quickly, or as frequently as expected.

Disability relates to context. In a society where no one reads, or only a few people read, the inability to read is not a disability. In a society where children are expected to be reading words by age six, inability to read is a big disability. It has a name, dys-lexia, which means inability to read.

Deafness is not disabling in a society where everyone uses sign language. A minor mobility impairment may become disability in a society where people are expected to walk long distances. A significant mobility impairment may not be a disability at all in the future that includes flying hoverchairs.

And so, by changing technologies and changing expectations, and not at all by changing my hands, I now have the skill set to serve as secretary for a motley band of health care professionals, some of us disabled ourselves, who are trying to change the way disability is taught to health care trainees.

Which is why I advocate for teaching the social model of disability as a major way to effect that change.
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