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It's Okay, You Can Say "Disabled."
An essay on how avoiding a word can be a way to avoid looking at oppression
(Reading time, about 8 minutes)
I first noticed my aversion to the word “disabled” while living in London during the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. The momentum and camaraderie of the former led to the latter selling out for the first time in its history. Like everyone else in London, I got super into the Paralympics, following most of the athletes on Twitter. When I saw a meme featuring one of the athletes about how the only disability is a “bad attitude,” I shared it with enthusiasm. I attended the opening ceremonies and two events and watched as much of the coverage as I could. I didn’t think there was a single thing wrong with calling the Paralympians “inspirational”—most of them were saying they hoped they were an inspiration, and besides, wasn’t that the point? These athletes were physically capable of more than I was!
Since everything I believed about the word “disabled” pointed to a lack of capability, I went looking for an alternative word.1
Without examination or reflection, I adopted the term “differently-abled.” I was also all for person-first language as this aligned with my journey around describing anxiety as a thing I was experiencing, rather than definitive of who I am. Love the person! Help them overcome their disability! The person comes first, the disability is not who they are!
A tweet by a disabled Black activist (Either Keah Brown or Imani Barbarin, the tweet is long lost to the flow of the timeline) drew my attention to the similarities in colour-blindness2 and person-first language. They pointed out that their disability is as intrinsic to their human experience as being Black. Saying they are a person with Blackness sounds awkward because they can’t separate Blackness from their personhood. It’s only under a framework of white supremacy that anyone would think ignoring mistreatment on the basis of race is a good thing. Not talking about skin colour masquerades as something noble when it’s simply a way for white people to avoid examining our social power and role in upholding systemic white supremacy.
This tweet got me thinking critically about my adoption of “differently-abled” as a replacement for “disabled”. “Differently-abled” only makes sense if we are judging ability by a standard or norm. It’s a term grounded in ableism because it centres a default “ideal” of ability from which some people are different. If we acknowledge that there is no standard for ability, and therefore everyone has different abilities, then the label has no meaning because it applies to all humans.3
Rather than rush to find a replacement term, I finally chose to be present with my discomfort around the word “disabled”. I wanted to understand my reluctance to use a term I was increasingly hearing disabled people ask abled people to use. I started with questions: Who does person-first language actually benefit? What does it mean to name a person, but put their access needs second? If access needs are secondary, then who becomes accountable for meeting them?
At the time of this questioning I had yet to embrace my own disabled experience of the world. Despite regular bouts of fatigue and chronic pain, I felt like I didn’t deserve to call myself disabled—surely, I thought, I wasn’t disabled enough. I wasn’t disabled like that. Until I connected with the Disability Justice movement, it wouldn’t dawn on me that this was a solid example of internalised ableism.
Like every human being, I had been told very specific things about disability through systemic ableism. Ableism says disability is fixed, permanent, and bad. It says it is a burden, a tragedy, and a deficit of the individual to overcome. Ableism teaches us disability looks a certain way and is in constant need of being monitored to make sure resources, support and care only go to those who have passed through its gates.
Our opinions, lived experiences, and ideas overlay a word and give it meaning. Drop a word like “disabled” in a room with five abled human beings and you are likely to get five different responses:
“I don’t think we should call people disabled.”
“I prefer differently-abled.”
“Everyone is disabled in a way!”
“No one is disabled, some people are just special!”
“You mean handi-capable!”
All these responses deflect from bearing witness to how society treats disabled people.
We don’t like to use words that shine spotlights on oppression we benefit from. Just like I have been trained to not name whiteness because that would mean acknowledging unfair social power, naming disability would mean acknowledging social power non-disabled people have over disabled people and the second class citizenship they force on disabled folks as a result.
When we talk about privilege—white privilege, able privilege, cis privilege, straight privilege, class privilege, thin privilege etc.—we are talking about power. To have power is to be a gatekeeper. To be a gatekeeper is to hold power over another and deny basic human dignity to those less powerful. Often, it also means you use this social power to define where the gate is and who is on which side of it.4 White people decide who isn’t white, cis people decide which genders deserve to be affirmed and if you are performing those gender “right”, straight people decide if queer folks’ relationships are as valid as their own or if queer people get to have jobs, thin people decide if fat people deserve access to medical care, and so on.
If some aspect of your identity needs to be proven in order to access support, then you belong to an oppressed group.5 If you require someone to prove an identity or present paperwork as validation for their experience, then you are upholding the system that works to oppress that group.
In an ableist society, abled people decide who has their access needs met, or how disability looks, and what hoops disabled people are required to navigate in order to get support. Abled people decide who is disabled and which disabilities “count” or are “deserving” of care and which are not.
By separating disability from personhood, abled people can act as if the problem is the language we use rather than the system they have built and maintain. Person-first language depicts disability as an attitude issue, rather than a human rights issue. It’s just an individual person who needs to overcome this tacked on disability, rather than an entire community of humans facing discrimination in housing, healthcare, and politics.6
Not saying “disabled” is a great way to ignore how society is currently structured to favour access for certain people and not for others. When we refuse to use the word “disabled,” we are refusing to notice who gets healthcare and who doesn’t, who gets adequate housing and who is limited in their options, who retains bodily autonomy and freedom of movement versus who is forced into institutional care or isolation.7
I use “disabled” with ease now, not just because I am disabled, but because I see the power in using a word that we’ve been taught to avoid. “Disabled isn’t a dirty word” is a prominent slogan in the Disability Justice movement. It’s a rallying cry to notice our discomfort with the word and the systemic oppression it keeps obscured. “Disabled” refuses to let us deflect the conversation away from the second-class treatment of neurodivergent, chronically ill, mentally ill, aging, and cognitively and physically impaired people. We cannot begin to change our current reality if we are not honest about it. Using the word “disabled” forces us to bear witness to discrimination and, hopefully, enables us to respond to it.
Thank you to Lauren for all the editing and revision support on this piece. You can learn more about Lauren's many talents on Linkedin.
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It would be years before I encountered the term ‘supercrip’, which Eli Clare brilliantly explains in Exile & Pride as the insistence that whether a disabled person does something super basic, like going on a date, or extremely skilled, like taking home the gold medal for athleticism in the Paralympics, it’s seen as an inspirational achievement and proof that disabled people just have to “overcome” their disability, rather than seeing how society prevents full participation of disabled people.
How any individual chooses to describe themselves should be respected. Within a community there will be a variety of ways folks talk about their identities. While I have never met a disabled person who calls themselves differently-abled, I'm certain they are out there. I have also met several folks who do prefer person-first language when it comes to their disability. Such people should not be used as an excuse not to examine the negative biases that make an abled person uncomfortable with using the terms disability or disabled.
And it means you get to arbitrarily change the gate location!
It needs must be said, we live at the intersection of our identities and can and do experience both oppression and the benefits of social power in all experiences because no human being is just one thing!
Marriage equality, for example, does not extend to many disabled folks, who would lose their life-saving/sustaining benefits and care if they were to marry.
Like how folks with chronic illnesses and suppressed immune-systems can't go out in public safely because most people choose not to wear masks anymore.