Abled, Disabled, or Differently Abled?

I have to admit, I came into the OT program thinking that I knew the “right” way, the “respectful” way to talk about people with disabilities. I would’ve cringed if I had read or heard the third sentence below; and likely rolled my eyes or fumed inside about inappropriate language.

“Nathan is a 5-year old boy with autism. He attends OT twice a week.”

“Nathan is an autistic boy who attends OT twice a week. He is 5 years old…”

“Nathan is a 5-year old boy who attends OT twice a week. He is differently abled.”

I had learned in one of my classes that person-first language is more respectful to our clients as it allows for the person to be defined by other factors (eg. age, interests, strengths) before being defined by their disability. It made sense. I internalized it. And I took it for granted.

Our professor instilled self-doubt on the first day of classes. She said that she would use person-first language …but that there was a heavy debate on the matter. She also made sure to point out how clients of this class introduced their disability and themselves. Some chose to point out several facts about themselves before bringing up their disability, and others laid out their disability right after their name.

My daughter doesn’t have ‘special’ needs. She’s disabled. This is an eye-opening article written by a mother of child with autism. In brief, the article makes a case for her child’s needs not being “special” at all and rather basic and ordinary. The mother also shares that autism has set her child’s life on a certain trajectory and has become an integral part of the child’s identity.

It seems that we are trending towards euphemisms to replace words we consider ugly…moving from “handicapped” to “disabled” to “with disability” to “differently abled”. But with time, the new words can also become somewhat ugly. (more…)

Diving Deep into the Layers of Reflexivity

My daily commute on Montreal’s underground transit system got a whole lot more reflective last Friday, as I read Barbra Gibson’s fresh take on everyone’s dependence on technology, and the tendency to “normalize” people when it comes to universal design and rehabilitation. Her arguments took me through various stages of bargaining, discomfort and ultimately reflection that things need to change in our practice as Occupational Therapists (OT’s), all in the 45 minutes it took me to get to the McGill campus. What follows are my opinions on a few of her points.

Challenging ideas of dependency and disability

A form of person-technology assemblage that resonates with many, author in photo.

The article challenges the idea that dependency on technology is just for rehabilitation clients, and argues that we are all in someway dependent on it. We are all part of assemblages, or a whole that consists of technology, our physical bodies and others in our social circle. These assemblages change depending on the technology we are currently using, with whom we are interacting and in what environment. This notion fits well into an occupational therapist’s mentality; our end goal does not necessarily need to be technology-free, we simply want to enable our clients to function in the best way possible. I spent most of my summer in my second placement trying to find technology that best fit both my client’s and their family members’ needs and ultimately making their assemblages work for them, even if it involved using the technology non-conventionally. I credit my supervisor for pushing me to think outside the box in my solutions, and really listen to what my client needed. As such, I whole heartedly agreed with Gibson’s take on this which made me bargain, or argue that my profession’s focus on function, with or without technology, still embodies this ideal.

Challenging the notion of universal design and normalization

Gibson also demonstrates how universal design, although innocent enough in theory, is essentially trying to design towards a universal human or an average person. Coming from Montreal, I feel like any strides towards accessibility are much needed, (I have seen WAY too many accessibility features that require one to use a staircase to reach them). However, Gibson made me question this ideal; (more…)

Is the Cochlear Implant a Cure or a Cultural Cleansing?

The market of assistive technologies has expanded dramatically in recent years. More and more researchers, engineers, and rehabilitation experts collaborate to build technologies that help enable people with disabilities. However, when we look at the statistics, 70% of all assistive technologies are not being used at all, or being used for a very short time. Why is that? Would disabled people not want to use devices that supposedly help them to overcome their disabilities? The answer to these questions is more complex than one might think, as the case of the ongoing debate over the use of cochlear implant demonstrates.

The Controversy

The cochlear implant is a small electronic device that is surgically implanted into the skull and inner ear,  substituting for the damaged parts of the inner ear, with an external piece worn behind the ear. In contrast to hearing aids that amplify sounds in the environment, the cochlear implant functions as an integral part of the inner ear, by sending signals to the brain (see picture).

For the enabled person, it is easy to see the advantages of a cochlear implant. This device can help deaf people to communicate with others, which eventually may lead to a better and easier integration into society. However, many people in the deaf community reject this product for several reasons. First, the Deaf community believes that there is nothing wrong with being deaf, so we should not try to “fix something that isn’t broken.” Second, some deaf people consider their hearing disability to be an integral and important part of their identity, so taking away their deafness will take away an important part of who they are. Third, some deaf people see themselves as a subculture in society, with their own language (sign language), and set of beliefs and values. Many people in the deaf community believe that implementing the device, especially in the younger generation, will eventually cause their unique culture to disappear, as young people will not learn or use sign language as a means of communication. Watch and learn more about the different sides of the Cochlear Implant Debate.

What I have learned

When I first heard about the cochlear implant, I thought that it was a great idea and that every deaf person would love to have this device, but I was wrong. (more…)

Giving a Voice to Children Who Don’t Have One

What follows is Vi Ma’s perspective about the 8th Edition of the Edith Aston-McCrimmon Lecture Series 2017 with guest speaker Dr. Tom Chau, PhD, PEng

As a future health care professional, I often think to myself,  How will I help patients as best as possible?  It never occurred to me that our contribution as physiotherapists can be more than simply providing one-on-one or hands-on assessment, education and treatment. I have recently learned that we can go further, and help, by working with other disciplines such as engineering. Together, we can create assistive devices to meet the needs of the patients we treat.

I first learned of our greater role with disability through technology when Dr. Stefanie Blain-Moraes presented the topic in one of my undergraduate classes. She spoke of the rewards and barriers of working on assistive devices. I was captivated by how she spoke of challenging our perception of disability and encouraging us to think outside the box. I was hooked. In our classes, we got to design our own assistive design in collaboration with a client.

Vi Ma, Physical Therapy Student, and Dr. Tom Chau, PEng Edith Aston-McCrimmon Lecture 2017

This year, Dr. Tom Chau was the School’s Edith Aston-McCrimmon Lecturer. He presented his innovative research on designing devices for children who are unable to communicate in conventional ways. The children, trapped in their bodies have no means of expressing themselves. Needless to say this affects their socialization and overall development.

Dr. Chau’s team has developed many communication devices that detect muscle activation, brain activity or vibrations of the vocal cords. His presentation incorporated clips of children overjoyed when they communicated for the first time with these devices and of the parents’ emotional response. I was deeply moved and may or may not have had tears at the corner of my eyes. I hope to have such an impact on my future patients and their families.

One of the main challenges that Dr. Chau underlines while designing technology is the wide range of the children’s diseases and conditions. With so many individual situations, each with their own unique conditions and experiences, no one device can solve all problems; there is always room to imagine and create new devices.

So, what can we do going forward? (more…)

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