In my last job, I worked hard with the people I supported to help them realize that they had disabilities and to realize what that meant in their lives. I did this for two reasons:
- The agency’s terminology of choice was “intellectual disability”, in consultation with self-advocates.
- “Disability” is so widely used that people really do need to know what it means for them. They need to be able to say, “I have a disability and because of it I need…” and they need to understand “disability” in order to understand and makes decisions about applying for supports that may be available to them.
I didn’t realize until recently though, that I just don’t like that word “disability” anymore. I’ll probably still use it, just because it’s such a socially recognized word, and I’m not sure yet what word I’d use to replace it. But I’ve really started to think about it.
Musings on “Disability”
My arm and leg may work a bit differently than everyone else’s, but they’re still “abled”. Some of the people I’ve worked with have been plenty more “able” in some areas than I have , even before the stroke – better dancers, better bowlers, even better cooks. And even though I’m a mediocre dancer, a terrible bowler and can barely cook a thing, I’m not “dis-abled”. In many areas I’m very “abled”.
But what do we replace “disability” with? I was struck by “diffability” when I first heard it, but rejected it for the same reasons that I have “differently abled”: It sounds like we’re trying too hard to put a positive spin in the wrong direction on disability. “Disability” could use some positivity associated with it, but it doesn’t need a spin implying that people with disabilities are different than everyone else.
Besides, everyone is “differently abled” when compared with the people around them. My sister had trouble writing essays in high school, when that was something that came very easily to me. I struggled with math, when that came easily to her. The fact that we’re all differently abled and have opportunities to use our strengths to contribute to society is a good thing, but that aspect of “differently abled” doesn’t come out in the way it’s used now.
“Disability” – What We Need
We need a word that:
- Conveys the importance of focussing on commonalities, not differences
- Stresses focussing on what people can do, rather than what they can’t do
- Uses positive phrasing.
Socially, it should also be a word that we’re prepared to make obsolete. Because if there’s anything I’ve learned about working with people with disabilities for so long, and living with disabilities myself, it’s that the things that *really* disable people and keep them from living “normal” lives are external to them. The barriers that create “disability” are out there in society, and society needs to become prepared to tear those barriers down:
- Make buildings/websites/transportation/processes more accessible.
- Design supports so that people with disabilities had a better shot at employment, education, income support and appropriate housing.
- Make our communities places in which everyone can participate fully and safely.
- Open peoples’ minds and hearts and find ways to change attitudes that disable people.
Let’s make the dream to eliminate “disability” and any other words for it completely, so that we all just become people with different strengths and needs trying to live together. Because, really…isn’t that what we are already?
On a totally unrelated note, I’m now writing articles about one-handed living over at Zujava. Check out the first in the series: