Language is powerful and the words we use make a difference. That’s why we need to be careful to examine the words we use when we talk about disability and people with disabilities:
I could write full posts on each of these points, and perhaps I will in the future. But for now, here are six terms that we need to delete from our vocabulary around disability and disabled people.
There is a reason that inspiration porn is a widespread concept among the disabled community, and it’s because disabled people are done with being labeled as inspirational for simply existing. The very [very] common mentality that disabled people are inspiring for living in a disabled body implies that living with disability is something that one shouldn’t be able to do, or that is so extraordinarily difficult and unimaginable. This has lead to viewing disabled people as inspiring for just being or doing the most commonplace of tasks, such as going to school, living independently, or not being constantly miserable because they are disabled. And if you think that’s an exaggeration, trust that it is not–many disabled people [and in my circle, many blind people] can tell you story upon story.
II. Special Needs
Far from being a term of endearment or a position of favour, special has become a derogatory term for the unique needs or accommodations of disabled people. “You’re special” often becomes an insult, meant to dehumanize and devalue the differences and unique ways in which every human being lives. The truth is that what many consider to be “special” needs are just adaptations, but the basics of what we all need are the same, which turns them from special needs into what they are: human needs.
Many disabled people will need extra help at different times, and this can often cause a feeling of being a burden or “too much.” Unfortunately, it isn’t only disabled people that feel like a burden–able-bodied people, both today and in the past–have used this term to describe their disabled equals. Saying that one is a burden only furthers the false belief that the needs and accommodations of a disabled person are more troublesome and harder to handle than the needs and accommodations of a non-disabled person.
The term caregiver is not inherently ableist or negative, but I want to address the use of this term, and moreso, the notion that disabled people always have one. Among others, I have been out and about with friends or family and been confronted with a stranger who assumed that my companion is a caregiver or caretaker. The implication here is that disabled people require a caregiver, and therefore, are incapable [or at least, less capable than non-disabled people] of being independent and self-sufficient. Having a caregiver doesn’t negate one’s own abilities and there’s no shame in this dynamic or using this word if it is the person’s preference, but we need to drop the assumption that disabled people have caregivers and a generalization of disability as being less capable of independence than those without disabilities.
When mentioning a disability, this five-letter word is too quick to appear in the conversation. It speaks more to the cultural norm of pity as the appropriate response to disability than the individual’s personal perspective [although they may be synonymous]. Either way, the pity that disabled people face on a daily basis communicates that the life they live, which is often fulfilling and vibrant, isn’t as worty or satisfactory as a non-disabled person’s life, and this only further marginalizes disabled people from their able-bodied equals.
I left this one for last for the sole purpose of it being one of the most problematic terms that exist around disability. However, it’s also one of the most common, with it being used to describe the “handicapped” parking spot or the “handicapped” stall in the bathroom, it’s engrained into our language.
What handicapped focuses on is the person’s disadvantage, or inability to live up to preconceived, able-bodied standards. It draws the attention to what a person cannot do rather than what they can. It points out their unique needs, making them into more than simply their individual, human needs. It takes away the human and replaces it with the disability.
So why then, is disabled an acceptable term?
Because being disabled is acceptable. It’s okay. It’s wonderful. It’s God-given and beautiful. With disabilities, we can still love, worship, help, feel joy and live fulfilling lives. And it’s much easier to do those things when disability is a celebrated part of a person’s identity… the way it should be.
What other words should be added to the list? Let me know in the comments.