The word “disability” can mean many different things to different people.
In the AAPD office and among AAPD interns the word is void of its usual stigma or awkwardness. Disability is a life experience to be recognized and accommodated. Outside of the disability community bubble, disability is a condition, something that happens to people. This is what has made the past three weeks so memorable and interesting.
Last week I was researching the intersection of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community and the disability community (a topic I’m sure I’ll write a separate post about soon enough), when I began to wonder whether someone who is transgender would be considered disabled. This eventually led me to a much more fundamental question about the meaning of disability.
To back up for a bit (I promise this will all make sense eventually… I hope) the word “transgender” is a broad term that encompasses everyone from those who enjoy occasionally wearing clothing associated with the opposite sex, to those who don’t match gender roles traditionally associated with their biological sex, to those who identify with a gender that is different from their biological sex (or identify as neither masculine nor feminine). Some who identify as transgender (or “trans”) choose to medically alter their bodies to match the gender that they feel best represents them.
From the perspective of most trans people there is no good reason why someone who is biologically male must act masculine, and there is nothing wrong with someone who is biologically female acting masculine or wearing men’s clothing or wanting to be called John instead of Jane. The reason everyone is so uncomfortable with people transgressing gender roles (the argument goes) is because society tells us its not right, for example boys must be “real men,” wear manly cloths and play with “action figures” as opposed to “dolls;” if they don’t they can face severe social consequences.
Anyways, many trans people believe there is nothing wrong with them psychologically (and reject the American Psychiatric Association’s “Gender identity Disorder” diagnosis… though this gets murky as the diagnosis is sometimes necessary for insurance purposes), however some feel that they have a medical problem in that their body doesn’t represent their true gender(just to be clear "transgender" is broad descriptive term and only some people who identify as trans have a desire to alter their body). In other words the problem is not with the mind not matching the body but with the body not matching the mind.
Here’s where things get interesting... under a broad and affirming definition of disability used by groups like AAPD I would say that of course transgender individuals who feel their bodies do not represent their true gender would be considered disabled. Having worked at AAPD, I have come to understand the term “disability” as an empowering term indicating a shared experience (that of not fitting the mold). But outside of the disability community the word “disability” still caries a great amount of stigma, it is not the symbol of a shared experience but simply a flaw, a limitation which negatively effects one’s life trajectory. So why would members of the trans community, who already face so much stigma and discrimination, want to self-identify with yet another label that brings with it the promise of additional stigma.
Ultimately, I think it is more a question of what it means to be disabled than of what it means to be transgender. Would someone want to self-identify as disabled if they have not been “marked” as disabled by society? Obviously, the trans community is not a monolithic community and the answer depends on who you ask, but I think it says a lot about the state of people with disabilities in America and the work that’s left to be done.
So I totally didn't mean for this post to be this long...