High-functioning is a term used by able-bodied people to describe a disabled person living a relatively normal life, most commonly used to describe autistic people, but often those with various chronic illnesses too. For example, if you were to call me a high-functioning M.E sufferer, I would demonstrate just how high-functioning I am. Violently.
The concept that someone disabled is “high-functioning” just because they happen to be out and about, have a job, or be studying is one of the most patronising ideas I have ever encountered. If you saw me in the office, you might think I was extremely high-functioning as I sift through reams of paper picking out the tiniest details to query (much to the annoyance of the medical team who then have to answer those queries), but what you wouldn’t see is my collapse from my wheelchair onto the sofa as soon as I get home. You might see me at a party looking glamourous and think because I can apply make-up, I’m high-functioning. What you wouldn’t see is me struggling to even remove that make-up before lumbering into bed followed by a day of complete rest.
I can cook, clean, do the laundry, study, work, and play hard, but each comes with a cost. I have to balance whether the price I will pay in symptoms is worth the reward of getting something done. Every single action, even sat at my desk typing away, costs me.
The truth is that the concept of high-functioning disabled people is routed in the false belief that disabled people can do nothing for themselves, or they’re not really disabled. In actuality, accessibility is probably the biggest factor in determining what we can and cannot do. I can only work where I do because my office has lifts. I can only socialise with people prepared to help me hunt down accessible venues. I could only get an education because my lecture theatres had a space for me.
Labelling someone as high-functioning sets them apart from their peers, and is often accompanied by the statement “imagine what you could do if you weren’t X” (fun fact: a teacher said this to me on results day and I nearly cried). It’s also often used against others who aren’t deemed to be as high-functioning, by saying “well, person Y could do it, so you must be the problem”. It can even be used against said “high-functioning” individual to deny them help because they “manage so well”. The removal of accessibility features then reduces their ability to function. Oh, the irony.
The truth of the matter is that disability effects each person individually, as do the accessibility features available to them. Disabled people will function to the best of their abilities as they see fit, and individual circumstance makes us impossible to compare. Maybe one person has just had their medication stopped. Maybe someone else’s mobility aid broke. Maybe the lifts in the office stopped working. To label someone as high-functioning because you got a snapshot glance at their lifestyle is, frankly, bad science. It would be like saying all meteors have a specific vendetta against dinosaurs because a big rock once damaged their population size a bit; ridiculous.
Continue to call us high-functioning, & I’ll start making judgement calls on your apparent lack of ability to not be ableist. So stop it.