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.