Saturday, May 05, 2007

In Search of....the first TAB

No, not that kind of TAB (illustration at left is a can of the softdrink called TaB). I'm on a search for the first use of the term "Temporarily Able-Bodied (TAB)". Love it or hate it (and there are plenty in both camps), it's a term you'll frequently encounter in disability culture these days. I've seen vague references to its emergence from the American disability rights movement, and those seem correct, but I want specifics: who used it first? When? When was it first written down, or recorded? Here are the bread crumbs I've found so far; I'm hoping someone out there in the blogosphere can fill in the century-wide gap between the 1870s and the 1970s.

ABLE-BODIED: The Oxford English Dictionary has cites for the use of the term "able-bodied" back to 1622 in England and North America. In the mid-1800s, it's definitely being used in official contexts, in opposition to disability, in reforms that were meant to separate deserving (disabled) paupers from the "able-bodied" pauper (who doesn't deserve public funds, by this reasoning, because he should instead work for his living).

TAPs? The earliest appearance of the phrase "temporarily able-bodied" that I've been able to find in the academic journal archive JSTOR is a 1979 article in the Stanford Law Review. In footnote #107 in the article "Anti-Institutionalization: The Promise of the Pennhurst Case," authors David Ferleger and Penelope A. Boyd explain:
"TAP is a term disabled people use to refer to so-called 'normal' people as a reminder of the vicissitudes of fate. 'TAP' is an acronym for 'Temporarily Able-bodied Person.'"
Was TAP also in use in the 1970s, or are the authors mishearing TAB? If TAP was a competing term, what tipped the balance to TAB? (Both Ferleger and Boyd are now practicing lawyers specializing in disability and mental health issues, in the Philadelphia area--perhaps my esteemed colleagues at Temple know of them?)

GEORGE WILL?!?! A 1980s appearance is mostly interesting for its source: conservative political columnist George Will spoke approvingly about the term in a 1985 lecture at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. In a 1986 Hastings Center Report article for the based on that lecture, Will says,
"We who are not physically handicapped are the 'temporarily able-bodied.' I like that because it reminds us that affliction and decline are coming to us all; they are incidental to our humanity. To be human is always to be more or less needy; it is to be increasingly needy the longer we live."
Will's version also illustrates one major problem with the term: it can be taken as an invitation to 'there but for the grace of God' thinking, an invitation that leaves unchallenged the construction of disability as a personal condition of decline, neediness, and affliction.

JUDY HEUMANN: In a 1989 article for International Rehabilitation Review, Ann Rae credits Judy Heumann with introducing the term 'temporarily able-bodied' in England. So the implication is that it's an American term, commonplace enough among American activists in the 1980s to be propagated abroad.

So where does this leave me? Still in the vague "sometime in the 1970s" zone. But I suspect somebody knows the answer to this. Or an answer, anyway. Anybody?


Anonymous said...

I have no answer, but I love the graphic...and the post.

It's interesting that many able will acknowledge that they are only TAB, but then let *huge* overblown *fear* of that time, get in their way of understanding the concept.

Jonathan Dresner said...

I'm pretty sure that the first time I heard it was in the early 1990s, at a Fred Small concert. His use of it dates back at least to Talking Wheelchair Blues which is copyright 1984.

Attila the Mom said...

Good gravy, I have no idea! Love the post though! LOL

Nina said...

I heard it as "temporarily abled" so maybe that's another way to search; but i didn't hear it until 1998, at an American university.

Zephyr said...

I always say that able-bodied folk are pre-disabled. Face it, almost everyone will face illness or disability before they die.

Anonymous said...

I first remember it being used in Berkeley, circa 1979, or I may have been hallucinating, which was pretty common in those days. :D

TAB tasted nasty! :P

Anonymous said...

Wow! I'd never heard the term before and it immediately sounds kind of sinister, as in "your luck can't last forever".

Surely "Currently Able Bodied" is less pointed..

(sorry if that's an old response to this term, as I say, I've only just heard it today)

Anonymous said...

The concept of TAB was brought home to me in a big way when my once able-bodied mom got Parkinson's ostensibly from a blow to the eye she received decades earlier. She's almost totally disabled now and also has the associated dementia, and I now understand that there are no guarantees and that any given person will likely be disabled to one degree or another at some time during his or her lifetime. Nobody teaches/tells people this; kids are taught that we mustn't stare, and I don't think most of us have a clue until we actually face it ourselves.

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