I read a lot of blog and Tumblr posts about disability language and terminology. You can read a conversation I’ve followed in the last day that’s pretty typical of type of arguments that seem to get going whenever someone asks about what’s the “right” or “wrong” words to use.
It’s a mess of a topic that I wish I could settle in my mind. Instead of trying to come up with my own Grand Unified Theory of Disability Language, I’m going to do a kind of “brain dump” of semi-related thoughts on disability language. It’s a start.
- For most of my adult life, I was firmly committed to “person first” language, centered on “person with a disability.” I still think it’s the most technically accurate term, which I think is the right thing to shoot for. I am a person with a disability, (or person with disabilities, plural). The “with” is key. Disability isn’t something I “am”, it’s something I “have”.
- Lately, I’ve found out that a significant number of disability activists reject “person first” language. I think it’s because they feel it minimizes how much they are, in fact, broadly disadvantaged by disability … both the physical or mental conditions and the social identity and discrimination. Even though I'm intrigued by this counter-movement towards identifying as a "disabled person", I still feel like the most accurate way to describe myself is that I'm a "person with a disability.”
- As a writer, I’d very much like to feel comfortable using “disabled” and “disabled person”. “Person with a disability” is cumbersome in writing. I’m starting to use it in blog posts, just to try it on for size.
- I’m also starting to think that maybe we should use both, depending on how things are going for us at any particular time. Most days, I do feel like a "person with a disability." Some days, though, I definitely feel just plain "disabled".
- I've had surprisingly heated discussions with people who insist that any form of "disabled" is negative and stigmatizing, and instead advocate using “differently-abled", "disABLED", or "special needs". To be honest, the heat isn't one way. I find myself getting pretty hostile myself, after my third or fourth attempt to describe "reclaiming" language falls flat.
- The word "cripple" makes a good personality test. One kind of disabled person can easily understand how calling yourself a "cripple" can be cool, bad-ass, or ironic. Others will never be able to hear "cripple" as anything but a wounding insult. It's usually not a decision you come to, it's a function of the kind of personality you have.
- "Differently-abled" comes from the philosophy of disability that says that disability is just another human characteristic, and that it doesn't really matter ... or shouldn't matter. People who favor “differently-abled” will eventually assert that, “Everyone has abilities” or, “Everyone has disabilities”. One reason why some of us reject the term is that we reject this philosophy. Disability doesn't make a person inferior, but it is a significant thing that shouldn't be minimized. "Differently-abled" minimizes our disabilities. Also, not being able to walk and needing to use a wheelchair is simply, fundamentally different practically and socially than having poor eyesight and needing glasses. Of course, lots of people reply to this argument by saying that we should minimize our disabilities, and that not doing so shows that we are somehow wallowing in our situation or using the label as an excuse for not trying to improve ourselves.
- Probably the most common objection to "differently-abled” isn’t philosophical, but rather emotional. It stems from the same revulsion many people feel to "Have a nice day", smiley faces, and other expressions of sentimentality or cuteness. “Differently-abled” seems like it’s trying too hard to whistle into the rain.
- I have heard many disabled people say that "differently-abled" was thought up by well-meaning but misguided non-disabled people. I don't know if this is true, though it sounds plausible. Still, I'm not sure I agree with the implication ... that most disabled people despise “differently-abled". It seems to me there are a lot of disabled people who do buy into "differently-abled”, or other creative spellings. There are certainly many who don't like any form of “disabled”, who associate “disabled” with the worst aspects of their disability experience.
- I've read a few comments from people for whom their choice of terminology is deeply connected to the evolution of their own thinking about their disabilities. Some people embrace "disabled" even harder because they view it as a hard-won embrace of their conditions. Others advocate "differently-abled" and other more "positive" terms because encountering them changed their self-image for the better. So, maybe where you end up on terminology depends a lot on where you started.
That’s about all I’ve got right now. I’ll probably write about disability language again, in hopes of putting the issue to rest in my own mind, and maybe helping to reduce unnecessary misunderstandings and conflicts.