There’s a phrase I’ve heard bounced around several times throughout my life: "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts." I remember thinking how this phrase reminded me of fractions, and I hated fractions. But as it turns out, it's not about fractions. There are actually many different interpretations of that phrase, but here's mine:
Each individual part of something can have its own meaning, which might not amount to much on its own. However, when you put those individual parts together, the meaning changes. It becomes a bigger picture that provides a different unified meaning, almost like a mosaic of different answers combined to create one beautiful and complex piece.
To me, this is how I view a disability as a part of one's identity. A disability is not the entirety of a person's identity but merely a fraction of it. This really resonates with me because I know many individuals with disabilities who let their disability define their entire identity. I understand why they might do that since a disability can seep into every aspect of their lives, making it hard to distinguish where the disability ends and their life begins. For some, their disability is considered their life or identity.
However, I see disability as just a fraction of my identity, rather than the whole. Let's define these two concepts.
What is Disability?
Disability is a physical, mental, or intellectual impairment that may impact an individual's ability to experience the world in the same way as those without that impairment. A disability is not a flaw in an individual but a result caused by the relationship between their impairment and the environment in which they interact.
Disability can be temporary or permanent, depending on its type and cause.
What is Identity?
Identity is a multifaceted concept that encompasses various aspects of an individual's self-perception and self-expression. It's a combination of an individual's characteristics, beliefs, values, interests, and experiences.
Each individual has their own unique identity, formed by their own experiences and perceptions in the world they live in. Our identities constantly evolve and change over time as we grow, learn, and experience new things.
A disability is merely a fraction of an identity.
I am not defined by my disability, just as a person is not defined solely by the sport they play, the books they write, or the degrees they have earned. These are all parts of their identity, just small pieces of the beautiful mosaic that makes up a human being, physically, mentally, and spiritually.
When I was much younger, I used to say, "I'm hearing impaired." That phrase never sat well with me. At first, I thought it was because of shame associated with my disability, and while that may have played a small part, it was mainly because the phrase implied that all I am is "hearing impaired," when in reality, it's just a small fraction of who I am.
I can still say, "I am hearing impaired," just as I can say, "I am a writer" or "I am a woman." I am all of those things, but I'm not just one thing.
What happens if you define someone by their disability or just one part of their identity?
- Individuality is compromised or lost. When you reduce a person's identity to only their disability, you overlook all their other qualities, interests, and experiences. This can diminish a person's sense of agency when they are placed in a specific box.
- Assumptions and stereotypes are made. Assuming things about a disability can lead to misinformation and encourages biases against that disability, while disregarding the person behind it.
Remembering that disability is part of a whole embraces the fact that individuals have diverse experiences, strengths, and aspirations outside of their disability. One of the wonderful things about humanity is how we are unique. No one individual's experience is the same as another's, and because of that, we are all constant sources of learning from one another.
As I think about disability and its role in my own life, I notice how, as I grow and evolve and continue to experience life through my own lens, I need to challenge my assumptions about it. I'm continually questioning and challenging my own assumptions and beliefs about disability.
How can you question and challenge your own assumptions about disability when it comes to viewing it as a fraction of a person's identity, rather than the whole?