Disability is often thought of as something rare and strange: a few unfortunate people who cannot walk or cannot see or who have mental disorders. But if you stop to think about all the ways in which human beings are let down by their bodies and minds – the vision problems, the hidden issues like epilepsy or diabetes, the aches and pains – then you begin to realise it is actually rather common. The World Health Organisation says that 15% of the population have a significant disability. Many more have minor difficulties, “the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to”, as we read in Hamlet.
I write a blog about famous disabled people from history (disabledlives.blogspot.com, if you are comfortable reading English). I try to challenge negative attitudes and show how successful disabled people can be. When I select prominent people to reclaim, I run into this question of classification. You would expect to see Helen Keller (deafblind) and John Milton (blind) included in my blog. But I also wrote about Che Guevara, which might surprise you, until you remember he had severe asthma. And perhaps you never knew that Winston Churchill was vulnerable to depression?
Of course, disability is associated with ageing. Half of all people over 60 have disabilities. So what about my favourite Swiss artist, Paul Klee? In the last ten years of his life he suffered from scleroderma, a degenerative disease. Does that make him disabled? Well, it certainly affected his painting style. In the same way, the painter Goya and composer Beethoven became deaf towards the end of their lives. The ancient Greeks had a saying: “Call no man happy until he is dead.” I think we could adapt that: “Call no one non-disabled until they are dead”. Though please don’t think disabled people can’t be happy!