Disability and language

By October 19, 2018 No Comments

Chloe Tear

Language and the words we use affect every aspect of our lives. Some would even argue that political correctness has gone mad and is currently out of control. However, today I am focusing on a very small section of language- the words we use to describe disability. Granted, this isn’t a small area and I can already see that I have opened a can of worms, but this is my take on the large spectrum of disability and language.

Firstly, disability is not a bad word. You are allowed to say that someone has a disability and it is not something to be ashamed about. I’ve had people almost whisper the word ‘disabled’ at me as if I didn’t already know, or that saying it out loud would make the individual curl up in a ball and cry. Don’t worry, the fact I am disabled is not a secret! I believe sometimes people just don’t want to get things wrong and I appreciate that. In the words of Stella Young, you’ve been sold the lie that disability is a bad thing. When in reality it is hard work, draining and challenging. However, it is also beautiful, adventurous and eye- opening. I imagine being able- bodied is exactly the same.

You’re such an inspiration!

If you have a disability, then chances are that you have heard this phrase. Not only that, you may have even heard this phrase because you completed a very normal everyday task. Society believes that disability is a bad thing, if you find joy in life then you must be extraordinary. The truth is, disabled people are able to achieve highly and this isn’t ‘despite having a disability’ it is because we work hard and we are just as talented. I appreciate that people can be inspired by what we do, and that is absolutely fine. It is important to remember that a disability shapes our lives in ways that cannot be explained. Yet our actions should not be justified because of that disability. If I have a piece of writing that inspires you to write a blog, then I’m so happy that is the case! If I get out of bed or go food shopping, then this isn’t exactly something to be inspired by…

Something on a similar line is the way we may phase the word ‘disability’. You may hear differently- able, disAbility, superhuman or handicapped. Why not just say disability? By referring to us as differently- able you are merely marginalising disabled people. It suggests that the term disability should be uncomfortable and therefore should be avoided. What this does is further increase stigma against disabled people by discouraging discussion about disability and what it means to be disabled. It actually reinforces the idea that there is one normal way to be human, that there is one normal way to move, one normal way to communicate, one normal way to sense, one normal way to feel, one normal way to learn and one normal way to think. That deviating away from this normal makes you different, surely that makes everyone differently- able?

When talking to other campaigners there is a big thing around ‘ableist language’, but what actually is this? Basically, it is a word or phrase that is used intentionally or inadvertently that targets disabled people. Many of the everyday examples have been engrained within society and people will not realise the harm they are doing. These words, to name a few, can be ‘spaz’, crippled, having a fit or retard. Again, have you ever heard someone use these words in a positive context? Probably not! When in fact, you are technically referring to a disabled person or a disability that someone can have. I am not writing this to change the world or eradicate all ableist language. If I was to challenge everyone who makes comments like this I would never be able to have a normal conversation with anyone. I also know that nine times out of ten, these people mean no malice by their words. I appreciate this doesn’t make it right, and the disability activist in me cringes, it’s just about picking the right battles. All I can do, is to ask people to be mindful.

If you take one thing from this blog post then please be aware about what you say, but as long as it is said with good intentions then this is what matters most! Yes, disabled people want language to change, but we also appreciate that people won’t always get it right. We would rather you engage us in conversation rather than not talk to us at all! If all else fails, talk to us like a human being. We appreciate that.

~ Chloe x

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