Some Disabilities Are Actually Quite Good For Society

It's time to shift our thinking about what constitutes a disability and what doesn't.

When my younger son was diagnosed with ADHD, the school psychologist ticked off a list of symptoms (hyperactivity, impulsivity, distractibility, etc.) and recommended medication. "Why," I asked, "Do you consider his learning issues a disability?" With an air of medical certainty, he responded that "these qualities are inappropriate for his age and will make it hard for him to function in a school setting."

But what if the disability in question actually has value to society? What if our economic well-being demands more people with that disability? It's time that we rethink our concept of disability.

In researching disability, I came across numerous technical and legal definitions, all devoid of social context. These definitions speak of being "impaired," but impaired compared to what and at what cost? What we really mean by disability is being significantly less proficient than most at a task society deems important. A person who is under par at, say, bending his left pinky wouldn't have a disability because pinky bending is not viewed as important. A person who is hard of hearing would have a disability because she is well below average at a task we consider important. If most people were hard of hearing, then it wouldn't be a disability. It would be normal hearing. A disability is not something most people have, or it would be considered normal.

The definition of disability matters because once we label a person disabled, we place an onus on society to accommodate that person and on the individual to accept every available remedy for the condition. So if a child has attention control problems, we consider that child as having a disability because she has difficulty at a task society thinks is important—sitting still and paying attention to the teacher. We expect the school to offer accommodations—extra time to take a test—and expect the child to accept the remedy, taking medication or learning new coping skills.

Some disabilities, it turns out, come packaged with high value strengths. That child with attention control issues may be inherently more creative than most of his classmates. According to one recent study, the prefrontal brain systems that govern cognitive control may suppress creative thinking. Highly controlled people are often less creative, and highly creative people are often less controlled. As education scholar Yong Zhou put it, "certain human qualities may be antithetical to each other."

Other disabilities are also linked to unusual cognitive powers. Dr. Laurent Mottron argues in the journal Nature that we must stop considering the different brain structure of autistic people to be an impairment. "Recent data and my own personal experience suggest it's time to start thinking of autism as an advantage in some spheres, not a cross to bear," Mottron said.

By focusing on fixing the disability rather than building up the accompanying strength—by trying to make the individual more "normal"—we may be holding him back. We force him to devote most of his time and energy at improving at what he's not good at rather than getting better at what he naturally excels in. Such an emphasis will likely damage his self-esteem because he will always be worse than average at certain tasks. And with all the time spent on improving on his weak points, he will have little left to fully develop his strengths.

We are much less disaffirming of the weaknesses of the majority. We don't, for example, consider an uncreative child as having a disability because most people are not particularly creative. According to one study, 98 percent of 3-5 year olds scored at the genius level on a creativity test, 32 percent scored at that level 5 years later and only 2 percent of adults. We consider being creative as possessing a special ability, but don't consider lacking creativity as possessing a disability. The uncreative child never visits a tutor.

During the industrial era, the economy required far less variety of abilities than it does today. There were few opportunities to specialize. Whole cities were been built around a single industry and a narrow skill set. But increasingly the minority quality—the less controlled but more innovative mind—is an indispensable ingredient of productivity. In today's economy, a young person who would have made a lousy pipefitter or plant manager might make a brilliant app designer.

To be sure, the concept of disability has its place. Some disabilities don't come paired with obvious strengths, make a person genuinely miserable, or render her incapable of functioning independently. A schizophrenic, beset with hallucinations, disorganized thought, and bizarre delusions, may only be capable of functioning in society, if at all, under strict psychiatric care. Society is right to demand that she take her meds. Likewise, some children with ADHD are so hyperactive that they can't function in social situations. The condition drowns out their strengths. In such extreme cases, we should not hesitate to call ADHD a disability and treat it accordingly.

If we had a magic wand, we would undoubtedly do away with schizophrenia. But would we extinguish ADHD, and its attendant positive traits? Our economic and social condition demands people with unconventional combinations of strengths and weaknesses, and ridding ourselves of them would cut off a source of innovation and renewal. With a 25 percent rise in the use of ADHD drugs in the past decade, that's precisely what we are trying to do.

It's time to shift our thinking about what constitutes a disability and what doesn't. Rather than change the definition of disability, we should revisit our idea of what’s important. Is it really critical that a child sit still and follow directions all day? Can we allow children and adults to be bad at things most are good at and be good at things most are bad at? We should. Our new economy needs more of them.

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