There is a lot of controversy these days regarding the word “disability”. Many people without disabilities still believe the training and education they received back in the 80’s and 90’s about how the words ‘disabled’ or ‘disability’ are bad words that shouldn’t be used. However, there are many people in the disabled community who embrace their disability, and consider it a part of their identity. Without our disabilities we would be totally different people. For me, my disability has helped me to be more humble, aware of my surroundings, and fully appreciate every moment I have with those that I love. I would not change the fact that I’m disabled because it is part of my identity. By using terms like ‘differently-abled’, ‘handicapable’, ‘special needs’ or ‘disABILIY’, you are taking away a large part of my identity. You are essentially saying that my disabled body is not good enough, or you aren’t comfortable with my disabled body so you are making up words to make my disability less awkward for you. In reality, what you are doing when you say these terms is telling me that you don’t see a large part of what makes me the person I am. You are saying that I am less than, or not as worthy, because of my disability. Many of these terms came about as a result of parents with children with disabilities who didn’t want their child to be treated differently. In those days, there may have been a good purpose for using these terms, and teaching others not to say ‘disabled’, but the culture has started to shift.
There is also a lot of controversy over person first language. Some people in the disability community prefer person first language. Person first language was created to help people see that a person with a disability is a person first who just happens to have a disability. While I see nothing wrong with this per se, there are many disabled individuals who prefer not to use person first language, but rather identify as their disability. Some people with Autism prefer to be referred to as Autistic. Some people with Paraplegia prefer to be referred to as Paraplegic. Some people with visual impairments or hearing impairments prefer to be referred to as Blind or Deaf. Some prefer person first language, and that is ok. For me, I don’t really care, but I’m not going to be offended if someone calls me disabled, because that is what I am. I am disabled. I have a disability. Some people prefer not to use person first language because they identify with their disability as a part of their identity, and they don’t want to lessen that part of their identity. They proudly identify as Disabled! I am proud to identify as disabled, but if you prefer to refer to me as a person with a disability then I’m ok with that as well. As you may notice, I use person first language and disablity first language interchangeably in my writing.
What I’m not ok with is being regarded as less than someone without a disability. Terms like ‘Differently-Abled’, ‘Handicapable’, ‘Special Needs’, or ‘disABILTY’ take away from the identity of a person with a disability. It takes the ‘Disability’ out of our identity, which is so often a large part of our identity. Sure, there is more to being disabled than just having a disability. Disabled people can do many things, we just sometimes do them a little differently than others. We are wives, husbands, partners, mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, employees, employers, students, volunteers, athletes and so much more. We are able to do so many things with our disabilities. Notice I didn’t say “despite our disabilities”? Phrases like, “Look what she can do despite her disability”, or “He overcame his disability to achieve so much”, or “She is so inspiring because she does this while suffering from her disability” are demeaning and should never be said. We don’t “overcome” our disability, we don’t do things “despite” our disability, we aren’t “inspiring” for doing everyday tasks, and we certainly don’t “suffer” from disability. These terms and phrases are used by people without disabilities to make them feel better about themselves, but those with disabilities are just living their lives like everyone else. Sure, we all have obstacles to overcome and some are more difficult or burdensome than others, but we continue to live and thrive with our disabilities. We all have things at which we excel and things with which we need help. It’s the same for those with disabilities. We are all people, and should be treated as such.
Like many cultures in recent years who are taking back control of words that used to be considered slurs, people with disabilities are taking back the word ‘Disabled’. Many of us have no problem with being identified as disabled because we are disabled. It is a part of us, and there is nothing wrong with that. Some, however, don’t agree, and have not embraced the term ‘disabled’ as a term with which they identify. So, what do you do when you meet someone with a disability? Well, you do the same thing we do when we meet anyone new- you talk to them. You get to know them. You pay attention to how they identify themselves, and if they don’t identify themselves in any particular way it’s ok to ask, “How would you prefer to be identified?” Or, you could say, “Do you prefer person first language or not?” If you don’t know how to refer to someone, the best way is to refer to them by their name! Disabled people, or people with disabilities, are all unique. Just like non-disabled people, we can’t put disabled people in a box. We can’t say that all people prefer person first language. We can’t say that some people don’t. The only way to know for sure is to ask.
However, when we use terms like ‘differently-abled’, we are putting people with disabilities in a different category as everyone else. We are saying they are inherently different than everyone else, and implying that is bad. Furthermore, aren’t we all ‘differently-abled’? Don’t we all have abilities and weaknesses that are unique to us? When we say ‘handicapable’, we are taking a term now considered derogatory, “handicapped”, and saying that people with disabilities are ‘handicapped’ but ‘capable’. Of course we are capable. We are capable of a lot of things. This term is outdated and should not be used. When we say ‘special needs’ we are implying that people with disabilities are ‘special’, separate from mainstream society, and have certain needs that others must meet for them. It’s just one more way of separating the disabled from the non-disabled community. When we write ‘disABILITY’ as a way to focus on the abilities of people with disabilities rather than their disabilities, we are actually diminishing their disability and their disabled identity. We are saying we should overlook the disability and only focus on the ability. This has multiple problems.
When we focus only on the abilities of people who are disabled, we forget about a large part of their identity…their DISability. When we say we don’t see the DIS in disability, it’s basically like a white person telling a person of color that we don’t see color. By saying that, we are saying we don’t see their heritage, their social struggles, and a major part of their identity. Sure, someone who is Black or African American, Indian, Asian, etc. is more than just their skin tone, but that is a part of their identity, and their experiences helped mold them into the person that they are today. We should not diminish a person’s identity if they are a different race as us, just as we shouldn’t diminish a person’s identity who has a disability. When we write the word ‘disABILITY’, we are essentially saying we don’t see your disability, and therefore we don’t see a large part of your identity. So let’s start acknowledging people’s differences, celebrating what makes them who they are, and stop trying to create labels that only diminish their identity.
If you’d like further insights into other’s experiences and how others in the disabled community feel about the word ‘Disabled’, feel free to read these great articles.
“Disability Is Not A Bad Word: Disability and Language” By Chloe Tear
“Disability Isn’t a Bad Word” By Kathryn Poe
“I’m Not ‘Differently Abled.’ I’m Disabled.” By Devon Price