Crystal clear

What’s the difference between disability, chronic illness and broken bones?

Illustration by Bram Keast

I live with a physical disability as well as a chronic illness. Both of these terms are fairly well known, but I still encounter confusion from many people about what they mean.

“Disability” is defined by Merriam Webster as a “physical, mental, cognitive or developmental condition that impairs, interferes with or limits a person's ability to engage in certain tasks or actions or participate in typical daily activities and interactions.”

For example, my disability leads to severe muscle weakness and deterioration. Because of this, it causes me to need an electric wheelchair, to need a ventilator to breathe and to have very limited mobility. So I'm not able to use stairs to get into certain buildings. 

However, a disability can occur at any time, any age and to anyone. A person doesn't need to be born with a disability to have one. Many people get into accidents and end up with a disability such as paralysis, brain injury or loss of a limb.  

When it comes to explaining a chronic illness, it's not as cut and dry as a disability. The terms “chronic illness” and “chronic disease” are often used interchangeably, although they mean different things.

Chronic disease is often used by medical professionals to refer to the basis of the biomedical disease – what is the makeup of that disease, what causes it, what does it do and how the particular disease occurs on a cellular level.

When a person who is living with a chronic disease is talking about their illness, the term "chronic illness" is used, because they are referring to the personal experience of living with the chronic disease.

Furthermore, there's a difference between a chronic illness and an acute illness. An acute illness is a medical event that is happening right here and right now, like an asthma attack, stroke, infection or medical trauma. The onset of the illness is rapid, it usually doesn't last very long, it's isolated to one area, and it responds to treatment.

Unlike an acute illness, chronic illnesses develop over time, are progressive, frequently involve multiple systems, have an uncertain future and require more care and resources. However, a chronic illness can cause an acute illness. For example, osteoporosis (a chronic illness) can lead to broken bones, which are an acute illness.

One of the most popular questions that people ask me is “what does having a chronic illness feel like?”

Well, it feels like hell. Everyone has had the flu at some point in their life and it sucks – you feel nauseous, your skin aches, you can't eat, and all you want to do is sleep. This is the daily life for most people who live with a chronic illness. This is how I feel every day. I can't tell people what it feels like to feel healthy, because I never do. 

Living with a chronic illness and a disability is complicated and challenging. For me, understanding the differences between these terms made living with both issues a little easier. It clarified that, yes, I'm a person with a disability, but I'm also a person with a chronic illness. Now, when I have a health issue, I can determine on my own whether it's my disability causing the issue or if it's my chronic illness.

Crystal Rondeau is a rock music and tattoo loving young woman who lives with a physical disability and chronic illness. Her main goal in life is to break barriers and destroy the stigmas that come with being disabled and ill. She does this by speaking in schools, volunteering and being very open and uncensored about her life.

Published in Volume 72, Number 5 of The Uniter (October 5, 2017)

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