By Rick Green,
Several years ago I wrote a New Year’s blog about reviewing the previous year to notice, acknowledge and celebrate successes. (And to me, avoiding a failure counts as a success. Who’s with me on this?! Yeah!!)
One member of the TotallyADD community, William, posted a comment asking whether I viewed my ADHD as a ‘disability or a handicap?’
It is an interesting question. Disability? Or merely a handicap?
What do I call it? Well, let’s start with what the Doctors, researches, and specialists call it: Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder.
Ever Notice The Slash?
See the ‘/’ in the name?
I’m talking about that diagonal slash that’s in there, between Deficit and Hyperactivity. It’s usually overlooked. It is rarely included in articles, blogs or books. But it is there to indicate that there are two aspects to this ‘disorder.’
The first aspect is a Deficit of Attention. Which you may well know isn’t really accurate. It doesn’t capture our actually experience. It’s not always a deficit. It’s uneven attention. Sometimes we can hyper-focus! Perhaps fixated! Stuck on some trivial task, while the urgent, important stuff never gets done. (Sorry, just shuddered there.)
The second aspect that is impairing is the Hyperactivity. By adulthood it looks like restlessness, impulsivity, impatience, feeling driven, motor-mouthing, intruding, having that dynamo inside you that never stops…
Until we hit the wall. And then, suddenly, “I need a nap.” Which is awkward when in happens in the middle of a meeting or a conversation or your wedding.
It Gets Even Messier, Folks.
But what to call this mindset get more complicated, because not everyone has the Hyperactivity. A substantial number of people, more women than men it seems, only struggle with attention, focus, memory, and organization.
Thus there are two different ‘versions’ or subsets:
‘Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder of the Predominantly Combined Subtype.’ Which means you have the whole menu of challenges. AD/HD for short. Or ADHD for even shorter.
And ‘Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder of the Predominantly Inattentive Subtype.’ Some people call this ADD for short. But it’s not used by doctors or researchers.
The ‘Subtype’ No One Cares to Mention…
Oh, and just to add to the confusion, there’s a third subtype, rarely mentioned it seems to me. These are people who do not have the problems with Attention, just the Hyperactivity. The ‘Predominantly Hyperactive Subtype.’ But a number of the doctor’s we’ve interviewed have been dismissive of this, suggesting it’s another problem, and shouldn’t be called ADHD. Because the problems with Attention are the core of this disorder.
I’m not going to get into the other types, the ‘Not Otherwise Specified’ and suggestions of ‘Adult Onset’ ADHD, because the person did not struggle with these symptoms in childhood.
It is worth mentioning that the level or intensity of the many symptoms (or traits or impairments or challenges if you prefer) varies widely from person to person.
As Dr. Steven Kurtz notes in our PBS documentary ADD & Loving It?!, if you’ve seen one child with ADHD, you’ve seen one child with ADHD.
So does that mean for some it’s a disability and others it’s merely a handicap?
DISABILITY? HANDICAP? Hmm… Uhm…
A disability, to me, means it prevents me from doing something.
A handicap, for this discussion, means something that’s much harder for me than for others. Like a great golfer who is handicapped a certain number of strokes to make the score more competitive. To level the playing field.
Whenever I’d play road hockey it was understood that if one team was slaughtering the other then we’d swap players. The better team would trade their best player, usually Vince or Bob, and the team that was losing big time, would send over their weakest player, usually Rick or uh, Rick.
Which means… I was the handicap? Hmm. Didn’t think of that till now.
So… Handicap? Disability? Those are my choices?
Maybe It’s Both? Is That Possible?
Yes, sometimes it’s a handicap. Less so each year it seems as I develop tools and strategies.
And yes, on really challenging days it definitely feels like a disability.
But here’s the thing… Sometimes it’s a strength. Or rather, aspects of it can be strengths. Okay, okay, yes, constantly tuning out of conversations is never going be a strength. Even when the other person is actually boring.
That said, wen I’m brainstorming comedy skits, or, well anything, I’m awesome. When this mindset works for me I get into hyper-focus, ideas are ricocheting, tumbling, building, and my fingers are a blur trying to keep up.
So yes, when it’s working for me, or rather I’m playing to those aspects of myself… or rather…no, wait… when I’m doing something where this mindset work to my advantage, then my ADHD is not a disability or a handicap.
Maybe that’s just me.
It Used to Paralyze Me
On the other hand, when I’m struggling to stay on task, wallowing my way through boring paperwork then my ADHD is definitely handicapping me. Not crippling me completely. (Though it used to.) I’ve learned I can do the boring paperwork if I create an empowering context (Which is New-Age Speak for ‘A Desperate, Urgent, Scary set of consequences if I don’t slay this particular dragon.)
What also helps me is medication, accountability, and scheduling the stuff that’s difficult for the mornings when I’m most alert.
What is ‘accountability’ you may ask? Telling my coach what needs doing and promising that I will not do ANYTHING else until I get this one thing done. Nothing else. And then reporting in when it’s done.
It’s Totally Situational.
So, with some tasks, like paperwork or long conversations, my ADHD is a handicap. I have to work harder than most other people.
Whereas ‘disability?’ Dunno. I’m not totally disabled. Just, working harder than most people on some things. At least sometimes. Come to think of it, I used to be totally paralyzed by some tasks… Until the fines from the tax department became excruciating…
On the other hand, when I’m doing things that terrify most people, like walking onstage in front of a huge crowd, my ADHD is no problem. (Unlike the paralyzing stage fright when it’s time to do my taxes.)
Onstage, this mindset is a strength. It’s no coincidence that almost every comedian I’ve met since we launched TotallyADD.com has told me they were diagnosed in childhood, or they’ve taken one of our screener tests and scored very, very high.
Like me, they have found a career that works with their ADHD. (And yes, they’ve also worked very, very hard to become good enough, to do comedy and television full time.)
They’ve found the secret: Minimize your weaknesses & play to your strengths.
Which brings us back to William’s question.
Here’s what makes the Handicap/Disability question so difficult for me: there are only two choices.
Y’see, I have ADHD. I like lots of options. A ton of possibilities. And if there aren’t lots of options or ideas, well, gimme a few minutes and I’ll come up with twenty of em.
Handicap or Disability? What if it’s neither? Or both? Or both and then some… (I mean it’s already a whole bunch of subtypes.)
Depends on the day, doesn’t it? In fact it can change minute by minute.
What do you think? What would you call your ‘Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder of the Predominantly (Insert your name here) Subtype?
How do you see your ADHD?