Monday, April 15, 2013

The Language of Disability (2013)

This is an updated version of my 2008 post The Language of Disability. As before 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, 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 was described as a hunchback and a cripple
Alexander Pope, described as a hunchback
and a cripple.
In the United States and Canada, person with disabilities or person with a disability is generally preferred. On-line, these are sometimes handily abbreviated to PWD. 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 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 was described as being lame
Lord Byron, who was described as being lame.
Handicapped 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 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 an invalid
Florence Nightingale was described as
an invalid
There 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 and 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 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 Lautrec was described as a midget (although he was over five foot tall)
Toulouse Latrec was described
as a midget, even though 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.

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. 


Matthew Smith said...

The insistence on "disabled person/people" in the UK seems to be quite a recent phenomenon; when I was at college (Aberystwyth) in the mid-90s the student officer responsible was called the Students With Disabilities (SWD) officer (the same was true at Cambridge in the 1990s according to Victoria Brignell, who held the position). However, I just checked their website and somewhere along the line it's been changed to "disabled students". I'm not happy with the change or with referring to everyone with a disability as "disabled", for two reasons: one is that it requires everyone, including those with a hidden disability, to identify with the most obviously disabled people, i.e. those with obvious mobility impairments that use wheelchairs. It is rather like referring to everyone from a visible ethnic minority as "black", regardless of how they identify themselves. The fact that the physically disabled were, at one point, able to shout the loudest because they had no cognitive impairment and were not housebound (before social media allowed "spoonies" to engage more) is, I suspect, no coincidence.

Second, the so-called social model is a theory which is only valid for people with uncomplicated physical impairments. If you have a condition like a spinal cord injury which does not cause terrible chronic pain (they often do) but limits your physical mobility, but would not prevent you doing any sitting-down job you can physically get to, you could say that you are disabled by society. If you have a severe cognitive impairment or a severe chronic illness like severe ME, you are definitely not disabled by society (although society may make it worse) but by your condition. Obviously there are people in between whose disability is a combination of both factors, but the social model as an absolute doesn't apply to most disabled people. The notion of the "social and medical models" of disability is a false either/or.

Personally I have Asperger's syndrome, and have a "disabled person's" Freedom Pass. I don't mind the support with travelling as I have had extreme difficulty finding meaningful employment. However, I would be more comfortable with it being called something like "Disability Freedom Pass" because people are more likely to accept that a disability is something they can't see than that someone who is able to walk, talk coherently, see and hear is "disabled". So far, I've never been challenged, so obviously Transport for London has trained its staff pretty well, but there's always the possibility that someone won't have got the message. I've heard of a young woman with epilepsy being turned off a bus in Bath because the driver refused to accept that epilepsy constituted a disability.

The Goldfish said...

Hi Matthew,

I disagree with you about the Social Model, although this is a common misunderstanding.

This stuff is about how we are to understand and use language, and asks, "What is disability?" rather than "What is the most limiting factor in your life?"

If the word disability is going to be useful to us, then it has to describe something that all disabled people have in common. It has to something social and political, as opposed to something individual, or else it is open to endless interpretation.

Saying that I am disabled by society is not to say that those limitations - which include social attitudes, even internalised attitudes, as well as obvious stuff like physical access - have a greater impact on my life than my illness. In my case, they probably don't.

But disability, as in, what society does is something that (a) I can talk about with others using a common language and (b) we can do something about together, to make the world a better place.

I always think of the Serenity Prayer: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can and wisdom to know the difference.

To me, the Social Model is that wisdom. Disability is the thing I can change. Illness is something I largely have to accept and live with - but that's personal and medical, and not political.

Liam said...

On "Special" - Heavy Load did this amazing song. Warning: uses lots of disability-related slurs, punk rock.

Matthew Smith said...

They called me a "special needs" kid at mainstream school (though they arranged a minder to follow me around and make a nuisance of herself). At the "special school" they called me a little shit. So, it's not a term I'm that fond of.

The Goldfish said...

Liam - I'd not seen that, that's great. :-)

You both might enjoy Ira Socol's 2008 BADD post Retard Theory - some of the commentators missed the idea of Linguistic Amnesty and the point of Ira's post by insisting that Ira couldn't use the word "retard" because he clearly wasn't one. Ira's point was that who gets classified as a "retard", or special or whatever else in education, is arbitrary - and as a child, that was his label.

bernard said...

Found your piece really useful. As an early member of UPIAS I was convinced to use 'disabled person/people' rather then PWD which we always associated with social workers & the like. However, in the history group I organise in Manchester, UK I was challenged in this by a Canadian woman. I didn't realise the US/UK split on this before.

Anyway. good to brush up on terminology before a talk I am giving on the history of the disabled people's movement in Manchester in a couple of weeks time. Many thanks, Bernard

JLT said...

Just a quick line to say thank you and well done for a brilliant piece on language of disability. I think your piece is both well balanced and well written. However, I suggest you put the paragraphs from the North American section in quotation marks e.g. "Because disability is something that belongs entirely to the individual, it is correct to use this "people first" language." As it stands, without the quotation marks, it appears as if you agree with the "people first" stance!

When visiting the USA I'm always struck by the "hierachy" of impairment, which appears to be led by the battle-injured veterans. I wonder if this is why the Charity Model, Medical Model and Individual Model feature so prominently? Unfortunately, most Americans I meet have little or no understanding of the Social Model of Disability.

I am utterly blown away by your comment:
"I always think of the Serenity Prayer: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can and wisdom to know the difference.
To me, the Social Model is that wisdom. Disability is the thing I can change. Illness is something I largely have to accept and live with - but that's personal and medical, and not political."

I'm going to swap "impairment" for "illness", print out a couple of copies of that comment, one for the wall, one for my wallet. Magic! Keep up the good work.

PS I'm not sure I am capable of abiding by the Linguistic Amnesty and may have to "stay away" until the amnesty is over. I find it hard to respect the self-oppressive language some disabled people use, by virtue of the fact that they are using such disrespectful language about themselves and us, and undermining the Social Model and its proponents. But then ... I was apopolectic when all these trendy young things first started reclaiming "Queer" and I've grown a little more tolerant, I hope!