Why I Will Never Reclaim The Word ‘Disabled’

Many people with a disability are reclaiming the word ‘disabled’. The thinking behind this is that if I am not a ‘person with femaleness’, a ‘person with Italian heritage’ or ‘a person with able bodiedness’, then why should I distance myself from my disability by saying ‘person with a disability’? Isn’t that just a relic of our discriminatory past that would rather pretend that people with disability don’t exist?

The social model of disability argues that this is the case. It says that a person is only ‘disabled’ by their society – the part/s of our bodies/minds/sensory experiences that don’t work according to the statistical norm is an ‘impairment’.

Person-first language proponents have rightly been accused of correcting people with disability who refer to themselves as ‘disabled’. It is nobody’s right to ‘police’ how people refer to themselves. If a person with a disability refers to themselves as ‘disabled’, I respect their right to do so. To correct someone’s use of language based on notions of ‘political correctness’ or even ‘empowerment’ is actually deeply disempowering to someone who has probably already thought long and hard about whether they ‘have a disability’ or are ‘disabled’.

But I will never reclaim the word ‘disabled’, and it is something I have to debate whenever appropriate. Here’s why:

There is an inherent contradiction in the way ‘disabled’ is used within the social model of disability. On the one hand, it is conceptualised as an identity marker – ‘I am a woman, I am Italian, I am disabled.’ On the other hand, it is conceptualised as something society does to a person. So, by reclaiming ‘disabled’, identity-first language proponents are basically saying, ‘this society has disabled me, therefore ‘disabled’ is my identity.’

Therefore, doesn’t reclaiming ‘disabled’ actually internalise the stigma that has been done to us for generations? And doesn’t it logically and linguistically follow that, if anything, identity-first language proponents should reclaim ‘impaired’ instead?

Another reason I ‘have a disability’ is because if reclaimed language is (generally) only appropriate when the person with a disability uses it, what happens when a person without disability uses it? Is it okay for a person without a disability to, from a place of respect and education, refer to a person with a disability as ‘disabled’?

Can I, as a person without a physical disability, refer to a person who uses a wheelchair as a ‘crip’? Reclaiming language only serves to widen the chasm between ‘those with’ and ‘those without’; it is based on a self-defeating philosophy that does the opposite of everything it is trying to do.

And finally, I will never reclaim the word ‘disabled’ because I would be doing people who cannot easily articulate their language preference (due in part or wholly to their disability) a grave disservice. In my research, I have not come across one writer with an intellectual disability who has reclaimed the word ‘retarded’. I have come across a few writers on the autism spectrum who are reclaiming ‘retarded’ based on being taunted with this in school, but they have no more right to do this than I have the right to reclaim ‘spastic’ based on the same rationale.

This is why I am not an Aspie, Autistic or disabled. I am proud of who I am, and that includes my disability/impairment. But in the same way that identity-first proponents are using ‘disabled’ as a political statement of identity and community, I am using ‘have a disability’ for the same reasons, and will advocate for its usage – again, where appropriate. Why? Because identity-first language is linguistically and logically contradictory, and makes it (societally) harder for people who have ‘less sexy’ disabilities to be seen for who they are instead of what they have.

I will always respect a person’s right to identify however they choose. But I will never respect their choice to identify as ‘disabled’, because it is a political statement founded on shaky logical and linguistic ground, and is not fully inclusive of the very community of people it strives to support.


8 thoughts on “Why I Will Never Reclaim The Word ‘Disabled’

  1. A very good and useful post. I also feel strongly about this issue: firstly, because the use of the term/concept disabled person puts state before individual … an able-bodied person is just called a person, right? So why do we say a disabled person? Better, at least, a person with disability.

    However, I’d go further. I worked as a Spanish-English translator for a university department in Spain for a while. They worked on disability issues, and had even studied how legislation historically made clear what people thought of the matter: at one time in Spanish legal history I believe (if I remember rightly) the disabled were called “inutiles” (ie useless).

    The term the university department came up with, however, was translated in English in the following way: “personas con necesidades de apoyo” – ie “people with support needs”. Which actually includes everyone sooner or later (few of us, after all, are able to contemplate dying on a golf green at 97 with a full head of hair, all our teeth, no bad cholesterol nor heightened blood pressure …). So it *is* possible to *define* the issue of disability without *picking on*/*picking out* those who are soonest in need of support. It’s also humanising, inclusive, kindly and just.

    “People with support needs” has six syllables. “Disabled people” has five. Are we really saying an additional syllable makes it impossible to leap towards the kind of inclusive – and highly accurate – language I’ve been battling to make understood for a few years now, on and off?

    Liked by 1 person

      • Ah! Got it 🙂

        In that case though, we should all just be ‘people’?

        If there is a point to differentiating between ‘people with disability’ and ‘people without disability’ (a distinction I believe is sometimes necessary in the world we live in), then we need language that draws the distinction in a simple and accurate way. If we don’t need the distinction, then we should just leave it at ‘people’.

        Am I making sense?

        Liked by 1 person

      • Yes. And I think sense needs to be made of this, as the sensibilities are rightly more complex than they at first might appear to be. In my case, my disabilities have never been something I can’t draw inspiration or positives from, and so I simply find myself unable to see myself as even “with disability”. I have stuff which makes life more difficult and simultaneously enriches me. In any case, when I come to that dreaded job question – “Do you consider you have a disability?” – I generally say no, because that’s what I sincerely feel about my life.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: DEfine us … DEfine yourself … then … REFINE us all | Fresh-Eyed Mils

  3. And what about those of us who don’t advocate for the social model of Disability? Those of us who have acquired disabilities, or who have degenerative illnesses? Are we allowed to identify as Disabled without earning your contempt?


    • Hey Ex., thanks for reading/commenting. It’s been a while since I’ve done anything with this blog, so I had to reread what I’d written!

      In short, people can identify however they like. I personally disagree with identity-first language for the reasons stated in the post. But you and others haven’t earned my contempt – there are significantly larger societal issues going down in the lives of people with disability than language disputes.

      I find identity-first language logically confusing and societally disappointing. But I don’t feel contempt for people who disagree.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s