Is Disability (or Down Syndrome) Abnormal?

dark blue double helix of DNA
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Is disability abnormal?

After Penny was born, we were told she had a genetic abnormality because she had an extra copy of her 21st chromosome. The doctors implied that “abnormal” described more than her genetic code. The implication was that abnormal described her. 

My online dictionary tells me that abnormal means, “deviating from what is normal or usual, typically in a way that is undesirable or worrying.” Deviating. Undesirable. Worrying.

On a genetic level, maybe the “deviating from what is usual” part of this definition works. Approximately 1 out of every 700 babies born are diagnosed with Down syndrome. And yet as humans, deviations are quite normal. One in five people identifies as having a disability, and all of us have physical and emotional deviations from what is usual. 

Penny’s humanity does not deviate from what is usual. She has her own personality, her own hopes and dreams, her own fears, her own brokenness, her own beauty. 

And then I reject the “undesirable” and “worrying” part of that definition.  

Many people associate disability with suffering. Suffering is undesirable, but suffering is not “deviating from what is usual” as far as human life is concerned. Moreover, much of the suffering experienced by people with Down syndrome comes from social exclusion, not from inhabiting the world in this particular body. 

I don’t mean to quibble with scientific definitions here. But I do mean to underscore the problems with calling any person or group of people undesirable. I stand among countless others who could not be more grateful that people with Down syndrome and other disabilities are in this world. Desired as they are.

(By the way, if you’re looking for a word other than “abnormal,” “atypical” is a good substitute.)


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Hi, I’m Amy Julia.

I write about faith, family, disability, and privilege.

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