Disability: an outdated term, or a matter of subjective choice?

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It’s a given that most of us have come across disability in some form or other: whether we have it ourselves or even know someone who has it. However, imagine hearing the words ‘disabled’ and ‘disability’ without having heard them before. Put aside previous knowledge (be it a little or a lot) and think about what images and feelings they conjure. Are they pleasant images? Are they fairly represented images? Do you feel neutral about them, or do you feel uncomfortable with the terms? What do the words ‘disability’ and ‘disabled’ say to you?

Last week, I came across an article on the BBC’s Ouch website by guest blogger, Rebecca Atkinson. The article presented an interesting question: Is it time to stop using the word ‘Disability’? In the article, Atkinson considered the ‘”d-word’” as she terms it after having run a campaign urging toy manufacturers to become more inclusive of difference in their collections. As she stated: ‘”it did not carry the modern or celebratory sentiment I wanted. It seemed to focus on the negative when the toys I was creating were singing with fun and colour.”’ To this end, her blog post went on to consider various aspects of the word ‘disability’, and it definitely got me thinking.

I can see where Atkinson comes from when detailing her points, and I particularly found myself nodding in agreement when it came to the definition of ‘dis’ in the English language. For me, and Atkinson, ‘Dis’ the prefix to ‘abled’ (in this case) appears to literally disassociate individuals from their ability, proving harmful. I personally don’t like being identified as ‘disabled’ as the word seems to focus on my inability to do things in the same way as others would – not that doing things differently is a bad thing of course. But all the same, I feel there needs to be an attitudinal change toward disability; language is paramount and should be explored as a means of altering the current attitudes toward disability.

Language, then, is about choice. Some may be happy to use disabled/disability, I am too, but only when it’s preceded with ‘a person with a’, or quite simply just using my name and leaving the disability behind entirely. There are times when my disability needs to be referred to and that is fine, but it becomes context dependant. Mostly, I prefer that just my name is used. My disability is a part of me, but it is not all I am, which is why I dislike ‘disability’ or ‘disabled person’ as terms given they imply detachment from mainstream society. There is another side to this in that ‘disabled’ and ‘disability’ are seen by some as positive identifiers, as it binds individuals together as a wonderfully diverse group. I am happy to be identified as a part of this group, but I will stress that my disability isn’t all of me. Society needs to see that people with disabilities are more than this, and the Paralympic games are a good example!

My own thinking could be at fault here, I may well have internalised the fact that disability is viewed negatively when it comes to language use. Yet, when I hear the phrases: ‘Are you blind?’ or ‘Are you deaf?’ tossed about, in those moments, to me it feels as if those labels are being applied to those who do not have those disabilities/impairments and therefore, ‘deaf’ and ‘blind’ become insults. This is problematic as it negates the true struggles of those who experience disability, impairments, or any other variation of the term go through in their day-to-day lives.

Disability therefore, as a term, is problematic even though the disability studies movement often emphasises it in such a way that it becomes disAbility, and more encompassing of an ability focus.   If it were possible to eradicate the term ‘disability’ though, would you and what would you change it to when giving a positive outlook? This topic is definitely one which offers me food for my thoughts, and I’m curious what yours are too.

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