Do You Have a Disability Gain?

Eric Trekell
Image of boy dressed in a super hero costume

I recently read an article, The Silver Linings of Parkinson’s disease, published a year ago in the journal Nature, talking about a survey of people who have Parkinson’s Disease (PD), a neuro degenerative brain condition that affects the nervous system and gradually leads to uncontrolled movements, like shaking and difficulty with balance and coordination. The reason it caught my eye was that the authors conducted a survey on social media, asking people with PD if there was an “upside” or, in the words of one respondent, a “silver lining” to having PD. Keeping in mind that it was a social media survey—which the authors noted was “exploratory” only and not a research project with rigorous methodology—the response was still a bit surprising. Out of 150 respondents, 14% said their life was worse after diagnosis, and 4% provided neutral responses – neither better nor worse. But 82% of respondents identified at least one, and often multiple, “positive outcomes,” “silver linings,” or “disability gains” regarding their diagnosis. 

This prompted me to start thinking about how we, as people with disabilities, view ourselves and the particular barriers we encounter in relation to our disabilities. We know the challenges we experience in school, at work, and in everyday life. But what about the silver linings? Are there any? I know a few people with ADHD who have said that the ability to hyperfocus can be an advantage at times—they’re able to concentrate so intensely that they can accomplish a lot, or that they can achieve breakthroughs in thinking.

This isn’t a completely new concept; some people with disabilities have been expressing it over the last few years, although perhaps phrasing it a bit differently. In her essay Armchairs and Stares: On the Privation of Deafness (In Bauman and Murray’s, Deaf Gain: Raising the Stakes for Human Diversity), the philosopher Teresa Blankemeyer Burke discusses “Deaf Gain” from which “Disability Gain” is derived. While Blankemeyer Burke goes into a much deeper philosophical examination, she notes a couple of “gains.” For one, Deaf people don’t experience hearing distractions and usually can more deeply concentrate. Because sign languages are visual, with more attention, eye contact, and body language required, there is a “communication intimacy” that is not achieved by hearing individuals—who are more likely to be dividing their attention between the person they’re talking to and their phone, the TV, or their surroundings.

More recently, some people with disabilities have been thinking about their disability as a superpower. For example, in 2019, the children’s book Maybe Autism Is My Superpower was published, recounting a conversation between 13-year old Ben Blanchet and his mother, where Ben described the “unique ways he hears, sees, and thinks about the world around him.” But it’s not only kids who are realizing that their particular disability can be empowering. Thirty-two year old Andrea Dobynes Wagner was interviewed for Elle magazine a couple of years ago in “My Disability Is My Superpower. If Only Employers Could See It That Way.”Andrea is black, female, and legally blind. As a child, she was told that her future was to live with her parents and that she’d never live a “normal” life. But today she has multiple advanced degrees and says “For most of my life, I’ve viewed my disability as a superpower – it’s made me adaptive, innovative and empathetic.”

So, what about you? Do you have a disability gain? What about your disability makes it your superpower?