Power of labels in disability identity

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Power of labels in disability identity: an illustration of a group of people screaming in megaphones at a seated person who is clearly scared. Illustration is for an article on the power of labels in disability identity.

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Cane and abled: the power of labels in disability identity

For about a year now, I’ve been walking with a cane again, and it has made my life so incredibly easier, and I’m not talking about moving around on my own.

See, when I was walking with my wife one day, holding hands, she noticed that I walked better having the support of her on my right side, so she wondered, “Have you ever thought about a cane?”

“No, I don’t want people to treat me differently.”

Back in 2008, I had used a cane, when I was in outpatient therapy, and that cane was a great improvement over the walker I had used before, which was miles ahead of the wheelchair I had been using since my accident.

I don’t possess the clearest memories of the first year after my accident, but I can recall with a twinge of frustration the high-pitched, “Hey buddy”’s and the pasted-on smiles of kindness due to disability.

I never want to return to getting approached like a lost child just because of my disability.

Of course, people treated me this way when I was limping too. If I was walking on the sidewalk, people would pull over and roll down their windows with raised eyebrows, “Are you okay?”

Oh, how many of them I wanted to say, “No, I’m not. And to be perfectly honest, it’s because of you.”

Of course, no, I never did. I just smiled, “No, car accident back in 2007. I’m okay.”

And then, they would drive off, as if they were just fulfilling a job duty: check on anyone who walks different and report back.

The funny thing is the cane had the opposite effect.

People don’t talk to me with the upward lilt of polite but uncomfortable anymore. There’s no smile with the mind behind wondering what’s wrong with me. Strangers are not pulling over anymore to check on me.


So, this semester, I am utilizing Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink as a master-text and a jumping-off point for my English 1102 course, and one of the things Gladwell talks about is human expectation and interaction. Human beings are uncomfortable with people or things that our minds don’t know what category to put them in or when those people or things defy the category we want to put them in.

As a young man with a clear limp but no other discernable clue as to my ailment, I fell outside the box.

People were concerned and curious. I once had a woman ask me, just having met me and without any sort of segue, completely apropos of nothing, “Is it something degenerative?”

She was searching for the box. Now, I must say I was taken back, but in a way, I kind of appreciated the bluntness. Sure, it lacked conversational charm, but she was thinking it, and she said it, which is a lot better than a falsetto “Hey buddy.”

The distance people create with disabilities like mine is because they’re not sure how to interact. Does the physical ability match the mental ability?

It’s safer to put me in one box than to risk making it awkward if they have to go down a peg.

The cane puts me in the right box. People know what a cane is. They know it helps people walk; sometimes, people have been in an accident; sometimes, they had an intense surgery, and sometimes, they were born with something. But, it’s physical. Canes help people get around, and most importantly, using one says nothing of one’s mental ability.

And so, I have come to love my cane but hate it for all these reasons.


Read more: The power of language and labels


I didn’t want people to treat me differently because of my disability, but instead, they’re treating me differently because they have simplified my disability.

I worried that using a cane would make me defined by my disability, and I am, but I am wrongly defined. People think they understand me now, so they’re comfortable, but they don’t think of me any differently; they just feel more confident that my physical ability and mental ability are not connected. My cane does not help me escape others defining me by my disability. It just gives people the confidence to take a more active role in defining, “Is it degenerative?”

The problem with all of this is not others. Human beings love boxes. Heck, I love to define and delegate. It’s part of who we are; it is part of being social creatures. Not that we accept it, but we must recognize it as part of us.

Other people aren’t the problem. The problem is me. The problem is that I let so much of my mental energy be devoted to how best to shape the image of myself in other people’s minds, as though I have any control over that.

The problem is I worry whether I will be defined as disabled, meaning incapable, struggling, insufficient, without ever asking who isn’t? And furthermore, without ever stopping to ask why am I giving other people so much power over me?

Not to say that I can stop their boxes, because I don’t believe you can. Every new conversation someone is slapping you with a label and putting you in a drawer. And, you might claw and scream and bang the sides of their mental filing cabinet, punching dents in, until it falls over, but you might never get out of that drawer in their mind.

Though, why should it bother you?

To thine own self be true.

Seek first to judge not; seek first to be open to understanding someone without demanding the answers to. God has blessed me with an open response to, “What happened?” and, thank God, the ability to respond to, “Is it degenerative?” with a nod, a smile, and the rest of my story.

Wait, listen, know someone, and wait for the rest of the story.

Your brain will search for the labels to slap on someone’s forehead, but it is your task to grab your mind by the wrists and hold it down until the opportunity comes for that person to make the label unnecessary.

Cane and abled: the power of labels in disability identity was republished from The Sunday Morning Staircase with the permission of the author
Article by
Will Carter

Will Carter is a native of Roswell, Georgia. He suffered a traumatic brain injury in October of 2007, while he was a senior at Roswell High School.