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Commentary: Disabled, or "Just Older"?

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Jeff Reifensnyder, of the Massena Independent Living Center, thinks dropping the distinction could benefit senior citizens,and the disabled community.

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JEFF REIFENSNYDER: "It has to have been going on nine or ten years now since one day my secretary who opens all the Massena Independent Living Center's mail, came into my office and handed me a letter and said hey look at this. To be honest I can't remember what outfit it was that sent that letter. I think it was the World Institute of Disability or some big organization like that. Anyways, I do clearly recall what the letter was about. It was about a prize being offered that as far as I know was never won and might be waiting to be claimed to this day. Fifty thousand dollars the letter said was to be made available to the organization or the individual that could come up with the word or the phrase that would effectively replace in how it is spoken, written and used - the word disability.

The catch was of course, that whatever it was you came up with, it had to have no negative implication or connotation attachable to it. Now I don't know about you but fifty thousand dollars is quite a chunk of change. To be honest I scratched my head for a month and thought that a smart guy like me had as good a chance as any to win that big money. The bad news for me anyways is that eventually I gave up. But that may be good news for you, if the money is still available and if you're thinking about giving it a go.

Tell you what, since I've already given it my best shot, let me tell you where I ended up. All you need to do is find a word that will make kids going to school who know that they are different but just like every other kid in school struggling everyday to fit and blend in, not cringe when they are asked if they have whatever word you invent. Easy? No. Needed? Absolutely.

As an advocate for people with disabilities and as a person with a disability myself who goes to schools to talk with and tell kids that disability is just a word and that discovering your abilities within is what life is all about. I can tell you first hand that unless I leave the word disability itself out of the presentation my audience immediately shuts down and written across their faces is exactly what they think of the word disability.

Kids aren't the only ones your new word will have to impress if you're going to have a serious shot at that money. Seniors have a tough time with the word disability as well. Again I can tell you form experience that should you have occasion to run across a senior citizen using a wheelchair, walker or cane and for some reason have to ask them what is your disability? Nine times out of ten they'll look you straight in eye and inform you in no uncertain terms I don't have a disability I'm just getting older.

Anyways, I hope somebody comes up with this new word soon because until they do I don't blame seniors one bit for not wanting to slap the label disability on what they prefer to consider inevitable infirmities of age. The only trouble is though, I don't think the new word is forthcoming and that's too bad because for the past three years I have been on a serious campaign to let our well organized and powerful as a group senior citizens know that issues they are fighting for like affordable housing, saving social security and any alternative to languishing their life away in a nursing home are the same things being fought for the almost as powerful but perhaps a bit quicker to grab a sign and demonstrate independent living movement and the people with disabilities across this country it represents.

Will that happen? I don't know. What I do know is that if the seniors were to join forces with people with disabilities we both would get done what we need getting done double quick. That would be a good thing and its a thing worth either finding a new word for what's holding things up or how about this for a radical concept, letting go of the semantics."

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