Whilst I frequently harp on about language and its importance, I am always alarmed when discussions come to a standstill over a simple word or phrase. This is why each Blogging Against Disablism Day, we have asked for a Language Amnesty; discussions of language are welcome, but we need to bear in mind that we're all coming from different places (quite literally).
Whether language is correct or incorrect depends entirely on what the speaker means to say. So the language of disability hinges on what people understand disability to be. The main controversy being
Disabled Person vs. Person with Disabilities
The preferred term generally hinges to on (a) geography, (b) identity politics and (c) a person's particular medical condition or impairment. And, unsurprisingly, a person's identity politics is likely to be influenced by both geography and their particular medical condition or impairment.
|Alexander Pope, described as a hunchback|
and a cripple.
Because disability is something that belongs entirely to the individual, it is correct to use this "people first" language. In this context, the difference between person with disabilities and disabled person is a bit like the difference between vase with a break and broken vase. It is also far more appropriate, for example, to describe someone as a person with depression than a depressive person. Since depression (or any other condition) might be the disability in this context, person with a disability makes total sense.
In the United Kingdom, disabled person is more often preferred. Whilst not everyone understands or agrees with the politics, the reason this term has been advocated is because of a way of understanding disability called The Social Model of Disability. This asserts that there is a difference between those limitations we experience because of medical conditions, injuries and impairments and those limitations we experience because of the artificial social and physical barriers we experience in society. Only this latter group of limitations may be called disability; it is, after all, the only thing that we all have in common and the only thing we have any hope of changing.
Many people agree that the limitations that disabled people face arise from these two different sources, but this use of language remains somewhat radical, even thirty years after its conception. What people tend to hear is "It's all society's fault and if there were only a few more ramps about, we wouldn't have any problems."
There will always be some people who have difficulty doing some things, and some of us will always have unpleasant physical, cogntive and emotional symptoms to contend with however society might improve. However, people who take this position simply don't call those problems disability. And because disability is something people experience as opposed to something that belongs to them, "disabled person" is preferred. It is a political status, very much like being queer or black. And as with those terms, a small minority of people prefer to use Disabled with a capital D.
It should be noted that not all British disabled people know of, let alone understand or subscribe to the Social Model, and of course most disability activists and academics in the rest of the English speaking world are well acquainted with these ideas at this point. Many people use both terms at different times. But that's your basic difference between the two terms, as I understand it.
Other Terms for Disabled People
Often attempts are made to take the sting out of the concept of disability. Dis- is, after all, a negative prefix and disabled is often used in other contexts, such as computing and electronics, to indicate that something is completely non-functioning. What's more, because of our negative cultural attitudes towards disability and disabled people, some people just don't want to fall under that label. In the UK, many of the campaigners against recent cuts in disability benefits and services, prefer to describe themselves collectively as sick and disabled or spoonies (after Christine Miserandino's Spoon Theory). Throughout the world, there are some deaf sign-language users (often writing Deaf with a capital D) who do not consider themselves disabled.
Some people argue that if society sees disabled people as useless and dependent, then the solution is to use another term. We should "see the ability, not the disability". Others even argue that "disability is a state of mind" and last year, around the Paralympic Games, a famous poster declared The only disability in life is a bad attitude.
Personally, I don't see a problem with the negative term; whilst it is by no means the worst thing that can happen to a person, disability means being treated differently and therefore is a disadvantage. However, several attempts have been made to find a neutral or even a more positive way of describing our situation. Most of these are euphemistic, with the rather odd exception of handicapped.
Handicapped / People with Handicaps
|Lord Byron, who was described as being lame.|
This isn't true. "Handicap" is a common word in horse-racing, golf and other sports and originates from a medieval gambling game "hand-in-cap" which involved drawing lots. There is a full explanation in the 1911 Encycopedia Brittanica, composed before handicap was first used in the context of disability.
Some people who take objection to words beginning with D, see handicapped as a positive label. In sports, a handicap is a disadvantage imposed on a superior competitor in order to make it a fairer game or race. So if we are handicapped, well maybe we're just brilliant and this is the universe's way of leveling things up for everyone else. A rather fanciful but undoubtedly positive notion.
Unfortunately, experience has put me off this term. Because it fell out of favour long ago, sensitive people tend to avoid it, regardless of whether they understand the objections against it or the etymological arguments. I'm afraid its usage has been accompanied by ignorance and prejudice often enough that I cringe every time I read or hear it. Which is a shame.
Modern Euphemisms for Disability
|Florence Nightingale was described as|
I have great sympathy with this, but I'm doubtful about its efficacy. When someone is determined not to say what they really mean, they don't always notice what they're really saying. So to speak.
Some disabled people's abilities are in no way inferior to those of their non-disabled counterparts, but merely different. The wonderful Institute for the Study of the Neurologically Typical demonstrates rather brilliantly, as well as everything we saw at last year's Paralympic Games.
Unfortunately, so long as different is perceived as an issue, it is a disadvantage. Imagine if someone described people who weren't white as differently-coloured or people who weren't men as differently-gendered. This is by no means neutral language.
And that's only if we give the phrase the benefit of the doubt. If we take it literally, everybody is differently-abled and the phrase means nothing at all.
Physically Challenged, Intellectually Challenged etc.
The language of challenges has often been used to replace language which was felt to condemn. For example, replacing delinquency with challenging behaviour, or poverty with economic challenges. Yes, I know it is a common tool of the fork-tongued, but it's not always complete nonsense.
However, our impairments are not challenges. A challenge is necessarily something which may be overcome, whereas the status of our bodies and brains is pretty much immovable. These terms also nod to the triumph over adversity narrative which is as problematic a stereotype as anything that disabled ever threw up.
Special, Handicapable etc.
These terms go beyond an attempt at neutrality and try to make disability something positive. I've never actually heard a real person use the word handicapable out loud, but it is used. Special, meanwhile, is widely used, particularly in education. Special Educational Needs can encompass a massive range of impairments, from severe intellectual impairments through giftedness to mobility impairments.
Seahorse wrote an excellent piece about special and the way that teachers and non-disabled children can react to this label. Also on the BBC Ouch Blog, Nicola has also written about the way teachers reacted to her, destroying her confidence with the best of intentions.
The word itself doesn't cause this patronising, sometimes exoticising attitude towards disabled people, but it undoubtedly backs it up. I'm afraid I have little good to say about this word and similar variations on the sentiment, but then I guess that being regarded as special and being regarded as equal are mutually exclusive.
|Toulouse Latrec was described|
as a midget, even though he was
over five foot tall.
Informally, many disabled people refer to themselves and one another using terms which have historically been used to insult, oppress and patronise them. The main two examples are gimp which gives me images of black patent leather and chains but is very popular in the US and crip from cripple. Other examples include freak, mutant and more impairment-specific terms like nutter and spaz.
Many disabled people, having had a period of coming to terms with their disabled identity, have a phase of using these words a lot, reveling in both the act of subversion and the sense of group-identity they provide. However, others are genuinely upset by them, especially those with raw memories of these words being used in malice. I tend to the view that as with all humour (because this is largely about humour and fairly dark humour at that), there's a time and a place.
Disablism vs. Ableism to described Disability Discrimination
Both these terms are neologisms to describe disability discrimination, and much like homophobia, don't make a great deal of etymological sense. They are imperfect - disability discrimination is more accurate, but more of a mouthful. The reasons different people use these terms are very similar to the reasons people use disabled person or person with disabilities.
If disability is an individual lack of ability, i.e. we are people with disabilities, then ableism is more accurate because it is discrimination between people of different levels of ability. If we are disabled because of the limits placed upon us by society, then disablism is more accurate, because it is discrimination against disabled people. This is why I called BADD Blogging Against Disablism Day, because Blogging Against Disability Discrimination Day seemed too long, I don't believe the abilities a person has are wholly independent of the society in which they live and to be honest, I had never heard of ableism back in 2006.
Lisa wrote an excellent post for Blogging Against Disablism Day 2008 about Ableism vs. Disablism.
Terms for people who are not disabled.
The traditional term is able-bodied, sometimes temporarily able-bodied (or TAB) to encourage the idea that anyone could become disabled in the future (although strictly speaking, most people won't). Many people reject able-bodied because disability is not about bodies, and even when people understand disability to be about individual impairments and limitations, some of these impairments are not physical and even some of our impaired bodies are extremely fit and capable of remarkable feats in sport or dance.
It may be appropriate to talk about able-bodied people when talking specifically about people without physical impairments, but able-bodied as an antonym for disabled is problematic. People with physical impairments sit at the top of the disability hierarchy, and the use of able-bodied perpetuates the idea that the only real disabled people have obvious, usually visible physical impairments; a missing limb, a spinal cord injury etc.. People who pass judgement on those using disabled parking spaces will often say, "The driver got out and they were perfectly able-bodied." as if that's a judgement you can make on sight.
People who use person with disabilities tend to prefer to use person without disabilities and people who use disabled person tend to use non-disabled person. Some people have objected to the use of a negative to describe the majority of people, but we do this for several majority positions - being non-Muslim, for example, or a non-smoker.
Slang terms for non-disabled people include variations on Normals, Normies, Normates etc. (usually used in derision about the sort of people who would catergorise themselves as normal in discussions of disability), Walkie-Talkie-Types and Uprights. My favourite was a suggestion by my late friend Jack Pickard who identified himself as disability challenged.