Temporary versus Permanent Disabilities
In the parking lots near every grocery store or shopping mall are parking stalls with signs saying “handicapped” or with a picture of a wheelchair. These spots are for people who were either born with a disability that makes walking difficult or who developed a problem like that later in life. For these people, the disability is permanent, but other people have temporary disabilities. Knowing the difference can help others understand these disabilities better and help make it easier for people with disabilities to overcome the barriers they face.
Some disabilities are obvious, such as when a person is in a wheelchair or has a broken leg. Others are less obvious, such as when a person stutters or has a fear of crowds. If the person in those cases remains quiet, it might be impossible for other people to know about the disability until someone tells them. Realizing that not all disabilities are obvious is important for everyone.
How do we define disability?
Even knowing what a real disability is and what is not can be difficult. According to the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the definition of a disability is not fixed because it depends heavily on how the disability affects the person. It is related to how the condition influences people’s ability to function in society and to deal with the challenges they face. Needing special help, such as a wheelchair ramp or a sign language interpreter, is often part of having a disability.
Disabilities are normally classified as either permanent or temporary, although some people add situational disabilities. Permanent disabilities are extremely unlikely to change, such as a spinal injury that makes it impossible for the person to walk or sometimes even to move. Some diseases also cause permanent disabilities, such as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s Disease that scientist Stephen Hawking had. Accidents cause sudden disabilities, but diseases can take years before they cause a permanent disability.
While permanent disabilities can last for decades or longer, temporary disabilities last only a few weeks or months. Examples might be a broken leg that heals in a few weeks or even a case of laryngitis that makes talking difficult or impossible for a short time. These types of disabilities can be difficult while they last, but they normally disappear fairly quickly and have few or no long-term effects on the person.
A third type that some people have identified is a situational disability. This category can include a mother carrying a child who is unable to carry her groceries because her hands are full. Normally, this type of disability is quite easy to deal with as long as people are willing to help the person in need. Parking stalls for parents with strollers are some of the accommodations that people have made for this type of disability.
Recovery from Disabilities
Understanding the different types of disabilities can help people know what kind of help they need to give. Someone with laryngitis in a job that requires talking might just need a week or two off work to recover. A person with a broken leg or arm might just need a few weeks of help with going up the stairs or carrying heavy bags to allow the broken limb to recover. If the break fails to heal completely, however, the person might need ongoing help.
Giving enough time for people to recover from temporary disabilities is important. Even if the problem is only a sprained wrist or bronchitis, the injury or illness can cause permanent damage if the person tries to get back to normal too quickly. Helping people out as much as possible can allow them to take the time they need to recover.
Time is often the most important factor with temporary disabilities, but people can also help make the recovery as smooth as possible. For example, someone with a broken wrist might find it difficult to type on a regular computer keyboard. Being able to use a split ergonomic keyboard might take enough pressure off the wrist to allow the person to begin typing again with little pain.
Advancements in Accessibility
People have become more aware than they once were about the effects of disabilities. At one time, for example, very few buildings had wheelchair ramps, but these features have now become very common. Almost all public buildings in Canada have wheelchair ramps or some other way for people in wheelchairs to get into the building without depending on others for help. Most sidewalks have a sloped area for wheelchairs to access higher locations, and many intersections have beeping pedestrian lights to help people with limited eyesight know when it is safe to cross.
These features are designed for people with permanent disabilities, but they can also help people with temporary disabilities. Wheelchair ramps and sloped sidewalks, for example, could help someone with a broken leg who has trouble lifting a heavy cast up a flight of stairs or a high curb. Audible traffic signals could help someone who is waiting for cataract surgery and who has trouble seeing the lights. For both permanent and temporary disabilities, these types of accommodations can be useful.
Some disabilities affect people’s ability to get a job or to take care of daily tasks, such as grocery shopping or cooking. Someone with an extreme sensitivity to chemicals, for example, might become sick in a store that has been cleaned with certain types of soaps. Although the disability is completely invisible, it is very real for the person experiencing it. In Canada, a person’s perception of a disability is often an important factor in determining the nature of the problem.
To some extent, Canadians have already been working to make life easier for people with this kind of invisible disability. Many buildings are now scent-free, and people are being encouraged to use natural products rather than chemicals. However, many things still need to change before people with invisible disabilities can function normally.
Treatment & Recovery
While some disabilities are easy to define, even if they are hard to see, others are more difficult. People with cancer, for example, have an illness that can potentially be cured. However, the treatments can last a very long time and cause the person to become very ill. Being cured of cancer often means either having surgery or taking treatments of chemotherapy or radiation, which can make people very sick. Giving the person time to recover from each treatment session is important for the overall healing process.
Because recovery from cancer can take so long, it is often considered a permanent disability. This designation can be important for getting government benefits. Because patients are often away from work for weeks or months at a time, they often need help in paying their rent, buying groceries, or carrying out many other everyday tasks.
At work or school, people undergoing cancer treatments might need extra time off, a special diet, or other help. The treatments might make them sensitive even to food smells or other scents, and people around them might need to be careful to avoid certain types of food, besides being careful about scented shampoos, soaps, and other products. People’s reactions to the treatments vary, and it is important to ask the affected person what to do or what to avoid.
Government help can be available for many people whose ability to function in society is hindered because of their condition. Someone who is unable to find work because of a permanent wrist injury, for example, might be able to receive a disability benefit. A person with an extreme fear of crowds might find it more difficult to receive similar benefits but could manage to get some money to help pay the bills while looking for work. In school, students can sometimes have a helper assigned to assist them in completing certain tasks. The amount and type of help that people receive depends on the disability.
The time and place of a disability can make a difference. In a city where medical help is readily available, for example, a minor injury is less likely to cause permanent damage than in a remote area where help is far away. Often, quick treatment is the key to preventing worse problems. For invisible disabilities like dyslexia or a fear of open spaces, it may be very difficult to find good treatment in certain parts of the country.
Advances in treatments and general health can also make a difference. In the twenty-first century in Canada, for example, a broken limb is generally a minor injury. It might be painful, but it usually takes only a few weeks to heal and results in little worse than a stiff wrist or a slight limp. Two-hundred years ago, however, the lack of good medical treatments and the generally harsh conditions of life often meant that a broken leg or arm was fatal. Even now, people from countries where medical treatment is scarce or expensive often die from conditions that are easily treatable here.
The differences in medical care might mean that Canadians need to make special arrangements for people who have grown up without the same kinds of benefits that people in this country have had. However, advances in medical knowledge also mean that some disabilities that are permanent now might eventually become temporary.
For example, major spinal injuries have normally been permanent because of how delicate the spine is. People with severe spinal injuries have often had to use wheelchairs for life. However, advances in spinal research show that this type of injury might not always be permanent. Researchers still have a long way to go before they can cure a spinal injury, but the possibility is there. Other permanent disabilities might also become temporary.
The Needs of People with Disabilities
In the meantime, members of the public still need to consider the needs of people with permanent disabilities. Ramps or small elevators are still necessary for helping people up the stairs of buildings, beeping pedestrian signal lights are still necessary for people with limited or no vision, and other features are essential for people with different disabilities. Since many disabilities come with age, even the people who currently have no disabilities can expect their condition to change eventually.
In some cases, permanent disabilities can disappear and then reappear. People with severe hearing impairments, for example, can get a cochlear implant designed to help them hear much better than before. However, the implant does not always work well for everyone. People might find the implant uncomfortable and have it removed. Having hearing problems might be more comfortable than the implant.
Being aware of issues like these is important. Limiting the amount of noise in a school or workplace can help people with some level of hearing loss, whether they have the implant or not. Speaking slowly and clearly is also important. Standing back to let someone with crutches or a wheelchair go by is a good way of showing courtesy to people who might otherwise get stuck or possibly trip and fall.
A “Social Approach” to Disabilities
The Supreme Court of Canada and the United Nations both have what is called a “social approach” to disabilities. This approach emphasizes the effect on the person rather than just looking at the actual disability itself. For example, a severe limp from an old injury might have much less of an effect on someone who has an office job than on someone who works outside all day or whose work involves standing. A fear of crowds would be less of a problem for a person who works and lives alone than on a salesclerk. Even a permanent disability can be manageable under the right conditions.
Temporary and permanent disabilities can impair a person’s ability to function, but not always to the same extent. With time and with assistance from others, people can often manage either type of disability quite well. The key is to listen and to be sensitive to all kinds of disabilities, including ones that are invisible. When others are sensitive and caring, people with disabilities can participate in all aspects of society.
AccessCan Inc. “The State of Disability.” https://www.access-can.ca/news/the-state-of-disability.
The National Benefit Authority. “Temporary vs. Permanent Disability Tax Credit Status.” https://www.thenba.ca/disability-blog/temporary-vs-permanent-disability-tax-credit-status.
Ontario Human Rights Commission. “What is disability?”
Wells, Karin. More than a Footnote: Canadian Women You Should Know. Toronto: Second Story Press, 2022.
Young, Marr, Malice & Associates. “The Difference Between Temporary Disability and Permanent Disability.” https://www.youngmarrlaw.com/the-difference-between-temporary-and-permanent-disability/.