We Need a New Word for “Disability”

I’m stuck on terminology. I’m becoming increasingly disillusioned with the  disability word “disability”.

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:

  1. The agency’s terminology of choice was “intellectual disability”, in consultation with self-advocates.
  2. “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:

  1. Conveys the importance of focussing on commonalities, not differences
  2. Stresses focussing on what people can do, rather than what they can’t do
  3. 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:

  1. Make buildings/websites/transportation/processes more accessible.
  2. Design supports so that people with disabilities had a better shot at employment, education, income support and appropriate housing.
  3. Make our communities places in which everyone can participate fully and safely.
  4. 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:

http://www.zujava.com/living-the-one-handed-life-general-tips

  • Elizabeth McClung

    I agree that there are severe limitations with disabillity, though agree with the social model that oft that is because of who holds power over the definition and thus the accomodation/perceptions. If people with the disabilities held power over organizations or in politics where funds were given and administered, we could choose our own language.
    I find it interesting to note, with the disability heiarchy (sic) and SCI’s at the top, that many SCI’s if para’s will completely disavow being disabled or having anything to do with people in the disability community, which defeats the purpose. The American Retired Person’s organization, which got the ADA passed, was open enough to realize that disability WAS likely part of their future or present life and got the power to protect it. I wish that would happen here in Canada – as long as the issue is kept provincial, so those in Provinces with access laws can ignore those in areas without laws, I think the collective view to change the word, and viewpoint won’t occur in Canada.

  • Hi Elizabeth…as usual, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. We don’t get to choose which language serves us best because we’re not in the positions where we’re empowered to do so, even in organizations where “person-centred support” is a core value. I’m seeing some agency-agency change in terms of having more “clients” having a stakeholder share in how agencies are run, but nothing comprehensive…and certainly very little representation at the gov’t/funding level. I’ve noticed the same thing that you noted about SCI’s and paras with young people with intellectual disabilities…they don’t want to be lumped in with other students in the special education classes, or the prospect of being “one of those people” that access day support services that they perceive as having a negative image in the community. So some will deny having disabilities. I think that your idea about anti-discrimination legislation legislation in Canada following the path of the ADA and becoming federal instead of province-bound is a good one – although we’re certainly seeing the even the ADA’s limitations in the fight to get more accessible taxis into US cities right now. Great to hear from you.

  • teddyeno@yahoo.ca

    Hi Sarah Lewis. This is Ian in Kingston, Ontario. Why not use the word deficit or deficiency instead of disability?

  • Hi Ian. Thanks for commenting. For me those words aren’t good options because I don’t necessarily see disability as a deficit or deficiency – just a difference. But (and I think this is more important, at least to me), both those words are very negative by nature. I can kind of let that roll off my back now, if people choose to describe my disabilities in those ways, because I’m pretty secure about my identity as an intrinsically worthy person regardless of having disabilities..but many people don’t feel that way, and really struggle with negative feelings about having disabilities. They don’t need exposure to any more negative socially-sanctioned terminology than there already is. And, frankly, there are so many negative attitudes out there in general toward people with disabilities that society doesn’t need to be adopting terminology with such negative overtones either. It just sends the wrong message to everyone. Does that make sense? Just my two cents on the matter…