Ericka Kofkin Defines the Word 'Disability'
The word disability tends to get different reactions from different people and I’ve often wondered why? I, myself, have been living with a chronic progressive disability for almost two decades and it took working with Ericka Kofkin, the City of Coral Gables Special Populations Coordinator, to accept and understand the true meaning of the word disability.
Truth be told, I haven’t had good experiences with informing people of my disability. Before my diagnosis, my employer put me on FMLA (Family Medical Leave Act) and devised a plan to legally fire me because they didn’t believe I couldn’t feel my legs. Then there was the time I asked the cycling instructor at the gym to please NOT single me out because I was trying my best. When I disclosed my disability, he jumped back 3 feet and I had to explain MS is not contagious. I can’t forget the time I parked in the handicap parking spot and an elderly lady yelled at me because she said I wasn’t an invalid. I very calmly agreed with her and informed her that in this day in age NO ONE living with a disability should be considered invalid, I am valid. Close to every experience I had with disclosing my illness was met with disappointment so it was just easier to buck the word and refuse to accept myself as disabled.
One conversation with Ericka Kofkin, just ONE, and I get it now. The way she defined the word disability is an example of just one small part of what makes her amazing at what she does. Here’s what she told me:
“Disability is an empowering and necessary word, because that is the key to accommodations. You said the term 'disabled' makes you feel less than, as if you are not able to do something, even though you can do anything, given the right conditions… you have the power and legal support to define those conditions through accommodations, which you can’t ask for, if you aren’t comfortable using the word 'disability.'
That said, disability, and disabled are very different words. All people have hair color, eye color, height, handedness, and unique skill sets… but no person is singularly any one of those things, just like no person is singularly 'disabled' and having a disability does not negate all of a person’s other qualities.”
I can whole heartedly say the City of Coral Gables made the right decision in hiring Ericka as she has a compassionate soul and understands the need for accommodations better than anyone. She shared with me that she lost her hearing in a boating accident when she was 19. It wasn’t sudden or dramatic and took months to put it all together. Furthermore, her hearing loss was progressive from the time of identification until now. Until very recently, she didn’t use the phone at all, which made applying for jobs and securing interviews nearly impossible. The City contacted her via email to arrange the initial interview. After her cochlear implants they provided her with a City cellphone and the attachment to pair it with her processors. The City’s IT department, and her coworkers were all quick to learn about captioning different meeting platforms for virtual meetings during the pandemic.
To sum it all up, I was right in that disabled people can be every bit as productive in society as able-bodied people when the playing fields are leveled. Professedly, I have my position as chair to the City of Coral Gables Advisory Board on Disabilities Affairs that led me to work with Ericka, whom I thank for shining the light on the fact that you can’t legally level the playing field unless you learn to accept the word disability.