Friday, January 9, 2015

Newbie FAQs: "Disabled"

FAQs spelled out in 3-D blue letters with a computer mouse in front
Why do you call yourself “disabled"? Isn’t that a negative term?

This is well covered territory. If you frequent disability blogs, everyone has at least one and probably more posts about disability terminology, including me. Since this FAQ thing is meant for beginners to Disability Culture, I will try to be brief and keep the explanation simple. I will also try to emphasize my own, personal reasons for preferring “disabled”.

I prefer “disabled” because it is short, just “negative” enough to acknowledge that having disabilities isn’t a picnic, but has enough broad un-conflicted acceptance among actual disabled people that despite what the word seems to say, it really is just a convenient label now. Most of us don't hear it as an assessment of our potential as human beings.

The other reason I prefer "Disabled" is that the main alternatives are loathsome to me:

“Special needs” reminds me too much of Al Franken's Stewart Smalley skits on Saturday Night Live … “Isn’t that special?" It is also a term that is overwhelmingly championed by parents and professionals, and not by disabled people themselves.

“Differently-abled” goes too far in trying to assert that disability is no big deal. It is a big deal ... or at least it's a deal. It isn’t the biggest deal, but it has bigger implications than, say, hair color, artistic talent, or math aptitude.

“Challenged”, (physically or mentally), strikes me as too much of a conscious effort to turn disability into some sort of moral quality. It suggests that the barriers we face make us noble. Frankly, I'd rather try to get rid of the barriers than take a bow for facing them. Also, like “Differently-abled” and “Special needs”, it is a euphemism, an effort to make something good out of something really bad. It’s like saying “Number two” or “Bowel movement” instead of “Poop” or “Shit”. Disability ain’t always easy, but it’s not Shit.

“Handicapped” is just too old. To me, it’s the disability equivalent of calling a black person “colored”. It says more about the user than the people it refers to.

And now, a brief digression about “people first” language:

I used “person with a disability” for much longer than I have used “disabled person”. I still, personally, think it is a socially acceptable and appropriate term for people who have a certain kind of relationship with their disabilities. For some people, it really does make sense to think of their disability as something they have, rather than an integral part of who they are. However, I also think there are others who just don’t feel quite right separating their disabilities from themselves. My disability is woven into just about every aspect of my life. It doesn’t make sense for me to think of my disability as an isolated attribute … like a “thing” that I “have”. So, to me, both “disabled person” and “person with a disability” are fine, and I don’t have too much of an issue with people with disabilities who choose “person with a disability”.

I guess it’s hard to be brief about this. But the underlying principle is simple. Don’t try to run away from what disability is by coming up with fancy, euphemistic things to call it.

As always, I welcome comments!