Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Language of Disability

I'm hoping to organise a third Blogging Against Disablism Day this May 1st. Shortly before the first BADD, I wrote a Brief Guide to the Language of Disability which was very brief indeed. I thought it was about time I made a more comprehensive effort, although this is just me explaining the different terms as I understand them and may not be all that comprehensive. Where I express my opinion (which I'm going to), I don't pretend to speak for anyone else.

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 I 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 was described as a hunchback and a crippleIn the United States and Canada, person with disabilities or person with a disability is generally preferred. There, disability has been traditionally understood as something that is wrong with an individual; a medical condition, an illness, an injury, a sensory or intellectual impairment. For this reason, there are groups of people who wish to divorce themselves from the label. Some Americans with autism or deafness, for example, argue that their condition is not a disability, because they do not perceive it as any kind of problem.

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 queer or black. And as with those terms, a small minority of people prefer to use 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. 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".

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 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 was described as being lameHandicapped has a very bad name in the UK, and seems to be losing popularity elsewhere. Part of this is due to the myth that handicapped comes from begging, "cap-in-hand", from a time where the only conspicuous disabled people had to beg for a living.

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 fanciful but undoubtedly positive notion.

Unfortunately, experience has put me off this term. Because it fell out of favour long ago, sensitive people don't tend to use 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 an invalidThere are a number of euphemisms used when talking about disability, especially - though not exclusively - where disabled children are involved. This is understandable; if the world sees disabled as broken, useless, then children with this label are in danger of growing up with some pretty negative ideas about themselves. Many parents and educators try to protect them from this with more innocuous language.

I have great sympathy with this, but I'm doubtful about its effectiveness. 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.

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 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 Lautrec was described as a midget (although he was over five foot tall)Reclaimed Terms

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.

Incidentally, I also wrote a guide to what we call them others (those who are not disabled) some time ago on the Ouch Blog, although I fear the debate was concluded when JackP suggested disability-challenged.


marmiteboy said...

An excellent piece Goldfish,

I have recently had some problems in the organisation I work for. One of our disability equality networks has been using some inappropriate language in its publications. I challenged this (as is my want) along with others and ended up in a long and protracted debate about language and disability. As a result I am about to write a piece for their publication on the whole subject. Your piece has given me a lot to think about.

In my opinion I would not want to be perscriptive about how someone wants to describe themselves. It is their right to refer to themselves as they wish. However, language is very powerful and defining yourself in a way that reinforces stereotypical views is not helpful. As a result I would seek to explain the Social Model to them and show how defining yourself in a certain way can be very empowering or equally destructive. One of my friends has a very useful phrase. 'Rubbish In. Rubbish Out'. I think that sums things up nicely.

As you quite rightly say not every disabled person is a advocate of the Social Model but it is my opinion that an awful lot of disabled people are either not aware of it or do not understand it. They have had a lifetime of negative imagery to contend with and it takes a long time to get over that.

The media, as usual, has a lot to answer for. They (usually) describe disabled people in either a negative or patronising way. An example of this was during the recent London marathon when a competitor completed his seventh marathon in seven days. He was described as a 'blind athlete' or 'Blind Dave'. Now what possible interest other than to portray this as a 'tragic crip overcoming adversity' is there in mention that he was blind. As far as I'm aware being blind doesn't have anything to do with fitness, being visually impaired has nowt to do with running. He had a guide (so reasonable adjustment was covered) but they have to mention it. If a gay man had doen the same thing or a teenaged girl would they have said 'gay man completes seven marathons' I think not.

I have been accused (by other disabled people as well as non-disabled people) about having a hang up about language. I disagree. I believe that unless we challenge then negative stereotypes will continue to undermine us. Black people in this country and the US were called all kinds of derogatory terms until they challanged the system that used them. It will take a long time and terms will change as time moves on, however if disabled people are empowered along the way it will be worth it.

Anonymous said...

Fab post! I need to re=read it to let all the stuff soak in.

I was thinking that BADD should be rolling around again soon ... same logo as last time, or a new graphic?

Oh, and I blogged about the word "special" previously. Have another post coming up on "retarded" (tho' it'll be a short one; have an exam tonight).


The Goldfish said...

Thank you both.

I see Disability Bitch has taken up the subject of "Blind Dave" today. It is rather baffling.

I agree Marmite that language is important and often - as Andrea points out in her post about the word "retard" today - people don't think and when they are pulled up on this stuff they get very defensive. At which point they tell people like us of having hang-ups.

But it is always about dialogue, never about lists of "good" and "bad" words and phrases.

Cara Liebowitz said...

very good post, with some very good points. i use the word "crippled" and "crip" as terms of disability pride, as I explained in my first (and only so far) blog entry. as for special...doesn't that just reek of patronization? i think so. i just don't like it.

Cara Liebowitz said...

just realized that the link to my blog to the left for Blogging Against Disablism day doesn't work. can you fix it, please? thanks!

Joeymom said...

Put this with that great post on the Ouch Blog, and I think I have a good term for us "others" who are disability-challenged:


Ettina said...

Special needs doesn't mean the same as disabled, particularly in the context of education. As well as disabled children, gifted children, language-learners and a number of other groups (such as poor children, sometimes) are described are having special needs. It generally refers to children who need special accomodation, whether because of a disability or something else (of course, with the social model of disability, the boundary gets very unclear here).

Anonymous said...

Here's my post for BADD: "BADD But Not Rude"


Andrea's Buzzing About:

Anonymous said...

Fascinating stuff. The parallels with 'queer' and 'nigger' as reclaimed terms is obvious (and no less divisive, it appears).

I remember being shocked on hearing the first Ouch podcast when the presenters bandied about 'crip' and 'spazz'. Working with the Disability Office in a university, it's quite shocking to hear those terms. Ouch's humour I guess comes from that discomfort.

Ian Hewitt said...

What an outstanding post. Congrats.

I'm a disability-challenged Brit living and working in the 'caring' field in the United States so I am very familiar with the People First Language.

The organization that I work for has adopted it and I was an early advocate. I have since then discovered the Ouch! podcast and your own fantastic blog and it has caused me to reconsider.

I am firmly convinced that language can be used positively and that it both reflects society and shapes society, but I'm all sorts of conflicted about what the right language to use is!

I don't want to cop out and say that it is all in the intention, and that it's not offensive if no one is offended... but that has to be a large factor.

I do not like the term 'special' and the pity that it implies. Do I have a 'special' need for glasses? Without them I cannot see well enough to do anything. Or is that an ordinary or normal need? My friend who uses a wheelchair, or my other friend who uses a picture-exchange book to speak may think the same about their 'needs'.

My mind is firmer on that point. But People First or the Social Model? I feel like I have a foot in both camps, but that as a disability-challenged person I have no right to make the call.

irasocol said...

Excellent piece Goldfish, thanks for sending it, and I linked it to my response re: my BADD post. I've struggled with 'people-first' since I was first introduced to it by an American university - just as I've struggled with the medical model. Of course in the US it is essential to declare yourself a victim - almost no matter who you are. With no functional health care or social support system, only by invoking sympathy can anyone get anything. So, in the US people fight to given "victim-labels."

In more advanced cultures, this is less necessary. You need not claim to be a lesser human being in order to receive government health insurance or educational rights, or unemployment insurance.

So, in the end, it is both individual self-view and societal politics. But it is never neutral. Words always say one thing, or they say another.

- Ira Socol

Anonymous said...

Among the Yoruba of Nigeria, "Bo pe bo ya, akololo a pe baba". In English, this means: Sooner or later, the stutterer will get done with calling out 'baba' (that is, 'father'). Applied to persons with disability, the day comes when they're liberated/healed. Even where a person is not healed, the Yoruba believe that "Omo buruku ni ojo tie" [English: Even the good-for-nothing child has his day (when he's relevant)]. In sum, as the Yoruba philosophy charges, do not look down on anyone with disability.

Lisa said...

An excellent post. Well thought out and everything explained clearly.

Another guide I find useful to point people at is: http://www.manchester.gov.uk/site/scripts/documents_info.php?categoryID=200041&documentID=106&pageNumber=5

Anonymous said...

I love the interaction that is taking place here. I just discovered this site today and am thrilled! Being a student, majoring in "special" education at a major American university, and the parent of 2 children, one who was diagnosed as having allergies and Asperger's and lots of ear infections; and one who was never diagnosed with having anything except colds once in a while, I have enjoyed the interesting perspectives that I see expressed on this blog. I love the original discussion post, Goldfish, thank you for all the terminology background and information! Being a "special ed." major, I have always felt the word "special" is patronizing... while it's use in education doesn't apply only to people who have disabilities as a previous poster pointed out, maybe "specialized" might be a better way to go, but still, this is not ideal. When I can't use the word "person" to clarify who I am describing, I try using words like "different abilities" because I believe that this word choice highlights what more there is in all people to be understood or discovered or experienced. But I can see Goldfish's point in that EVERY person has different abilities and therefore, the words "different abilities" describe everyone and therefore may not be effective when dilineations amongst groups of different people are needed for the sake of communication. As for Asperger or autism, my perspective is that there is nothing wrong with using the word autistic or asperger instead of "a person with autism." I feel that by not being able to say "autisic" or "he's autistic" it's like saying there's something wrong with being autistic. I don't see autism or any "disability" as being something "wrong." I see it as something that just is. This has caused much personal conflict for me as I've participated in the special education coursework required for my certification. My professors at the university feel very strongly and have had class discussion about their consensus that educators should always use the language of "a person with (autism/ cognitive disabilities/ physical disabilities, mental retardation, etc.)" because this "highlights the person first" as they say. But I say, sure, the person is first, but then you're saying right after that, that there's something wrong with the just-mentioned person. Again, my own personal issue with this goes to what many on this blog are mentioning, and I see it as one of the most truly beautiful and yet truly difficult things about all forms of communication from language to email, to facial expression to silence: outwardly similar appearing communication can convey completely different meaning, based on the intention of the user and the interpretation of the receiver of the communication. And these 2 variables (the intention and the interpretation) are continuously combined in mulitiple combinations, across multiple settings and within multiple contexts, so much that a "true" agreed upon meaning becomes elusive. I think in the end, we are all really striving for the same thing... to understand and to be understood as we wish, but maybe that can never be as "solid" of a thing as we suppose it is and maybe this is the real issue that we are all struggling with, but that we nonetheless, continue to work towards gaining a greater understanding of. I REALLY appreciate this website and this blog, I look forward to BADD! Thank you!
Sorry, I'm posting anonymously here because I don't yet have an identity or login name, I'll work on that before my next post!

Melissa said...

Ooooh! Mutant!!! I like the idea of Mutant! :)

I'm hoping to come up with something worthy of a May 1st post. I'll sign up if I do.

Peggy said...

I am new to your blog Goldfish and I am so glad that found you.
I am a physically challenged women and have been my whole life. You speak to me and I will follow you!

LiveWorkPlay said...

Isn't it obvious why "people first" language makes sense? If you call someone a "disabled person" it means that as a person they are not functional, as opposed to a person with a disability or a person who has a disability - they are a full person, but they happen to have a disability. Ironically marmiteboy used the phrase "disabled person" in almost every paragraph.

Tanmoy said...

Just one point (as I have noted elsewhere in published form): it's good to see that the PwD Vs DP debate is still alive. It's helpful sometime to remember and realise that much of the debate is due to the linguistic properties of the language concerned. It's not simply possible in many many languages of the world to even phrase 'person with disability' or even the larger form of this Preposition Phrase, namely, the Relative Clause 'Person who is with Disability', and the ONLY way to phrase this in those vast majority of languages is to use a pre-nominal Adjective or a participial. Within English, I am a bit surprised to see that no one has really challenged the preposition 'with' itself, (or have they?) which seems to me to be highly problematic.

Leslie said...

Thanks for this post.... It's really interesting and well written, and helps people like myself who are often "linguistically challenged"... :-)


OurRightToFight said...

I'm just so glad to have people like you getting the message out there. We have two mentally disabled children, one is 22 and the other is 10. The oldest one has been told all his life that he has 'special needs' and just when he's finally accepted he is different, this wretched government and others begin to destroy him again. As parents of disabled children you learn to be assertive and demanding but the pressure takes its toll because we are all equal and yet we are fighting a battle to make us equal. In today's society we are faced by ignorance, the likes of which amaze me. I've begun to wonder where any lessons have been learned but yet again the vulnerable are attacked and it's wrong all to hell. People don't ask for disabilities but yet they're punished for having them. I shan't write how I feel as it's not printable but sufficed to say something needs to be done and soon.

To all of you fighting this I say well done and we're with you. Benjamin Franklin's comment at the beginning of the blog couldn't be more apt and truthful. Let's hope this all back fires on the insensitive and heartless individuals who deem it fit to go after people who already struggle. Thank you again for the lovely read.

Indigo Jo said...

I'm living in the UK and person-first language is known of here. In particular, the term "Students with Disabilities" is used in colleges in the name of the society, if there is one, and the officer concerned with them. This is mainly because not everyone with a disability identifies as disabled, particularly if it doesn't stop them walking.

On the other hand, although expressions like "the blind" have fallen out of favour, they have been replaced by "blind/deaf people" rather than "people who are blind/deaf".

Meg said...

Joeymom's suggestion for labeling non-disabled people was brilliant:

Unlikely it'll turn up in a medical journal but it sure puts a spin on who's disadvantaged.