By Andrea Scarpino
“Whoa, look at that leg,” the boy at the airport said. He was watching a man with a prosthetic leg walk to the gate to board his plane. The boy’s eyes were wide and his voice full of awe.
“That man has a robot leg,” he said to his father. “I’ve never seen that before. That is so cool.” The father looked as well, said, “Yeah, that is really cool.”
And in that moment, I understood more fully than I ever have before that disability is a social construct. Because for that boy, there was nothing “wrong” with a prosthetic leg—or with someone who needs to use one. I’m pretty sure the word “disabled” didn’t enter his mind. He saw a robot—and he thought that robot was worthy of awe.
That’s something I think a lot of people don’t understand about disability. That we define it, both individually and as a society. We choose its parameters. We choose what “counts” as disability. And we can choose to shift our definitions at any time, to see them through different lenses. We can choose to understand a prosthetic leg as a limitation and/or as a cool robot.
Last week, I sat half asleep in faculty meeting when my university’s ADA coordinator gave a presentation about complying with ADA regulations. I perked up immediately—and immediately felt my heart race. ADA compliance was framed as something faculty needs to do so that pesky students with disabilities don’t sue us. Indeed, the presentation began with a story of a student who had sued a university for appropriate accommodations—and won. The longer I listened, the more irate I became.
Because accommodation shouldn’t be presented as a financial drain or “going out of our way” for the squeaky wheel. It is a matter of social justice, of valuing every person for who she is, for listening to every person’s needs and working our hardest to meet them. In a way, it’s a type of consensus decision making, of not just allowing every person’s participation in the system, but encouraging it. Of being clear that we all benefit from the inclusion of people unlike us.
So, with the provost in the room, with the university president in the room, I raised my hand. And I tried very hard to control my voice as I spoke. But I was angry and that was pretty clear. The next day, the provost told me I had rattled our ADA coordinator—I think he used the word “intimidated.” And I guess I’m sorry about that—she was just trying to do her job. And she doesn’t have a background in disability or Disability Studies, I’ve since learned.
So I guess I’ll reach out to her this week. I guess I’ll try to help her understand my anger. I guess I’ll try to be clearer about how disability—like gender, like race—is socially constructed. About what that really means. About the boy in the airport, how he didn’t see a prosthetic leg as a problem, a potential lawsuit, a potential financial burden. As something to be “fixed” or ignored, swept out of sight. How he just saw it as really cool. A “robot leg” he called it. And he said it with awe, with admiration.
Andrea Scarpino is a poet and essayist and a frequent contributor to POTB. Check her out at: