What is in a name? When it comes to identifying as disabled, a name is quite a big thing. For years, being disabled meant that you had “given in,” “given up to your disease,” were weak, lesser, sometimes barely even human. If I look up “disabled” in a thesaurus, here is the list of words I get, from Thesaurus.com:
handicapped, infirm, paralyzed,
weakened, wounded, confined,
disarmed, hamstrung, hurt,
lame, maimed, sidelined,
stalled, wrecked, broken down,
decrepit, helpless, incapable,
laid up, out of action, out of commission,
powerless, rundown, worn out…
Look at some of those words. It is easy to see why shame and stigma have been attached to the word “disabled” or “disability” for centuries. Especially in America, the land of dreams, where you “pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” full of “self made men,” being wrecked, incapable, helpless – no one would want that. I am not incapable. I am not helpless.
One word which did not make this list but is an older term for disabled is invalid. We pronounce it IN-valid, with the emphasis on the first syllable. But stop and look at the word. In-valid. Not-valid. For decades, we were classified as not valid. Not real, not acceptable, not correct. Invalid. I still hear people say it today – and it is terrifying when I hear someone not of my grandparent’s generation saying it. I just heard a main character in Law & Order: SVU say it in an episode and I was shocked. How can a person be not valid?
And then the 90’s happened, and we became introduced to Political Correctness. Don’t get me wrong. Generally, I prefer PC terms. But this is when people with disabilities were given all kinds of new names, ones without shame. We became differently abled, special needs, exceptional, special, challenged, and my personal favorite, handi-capable.
I am not now, nor have I ever been “handi-capable.” Most of these terms were given to us by people outside community, people who did not have a disability, but wanted to make us feel better about ourselves. I do not need made up or repurposed words to make me feel better about myself.
I am disabled. I have a disability. I am a person with a disability. Person first language is critical, and I try to use it as much as possible, especially when speaking about others or the community as a whole. (My reasons for stressing person first language will have to wait for another blog post) But, when speaking about myself I will say I am disabled, I have a disability, I am a person with a disability.
There. I said it. The big “D.” Whenever there are events aimed at the Disability Community, people always feel the need to come up with a way to avoid saying “disability.” That is how we have the Abilities Expo, Independence Expos, forums on a Disney chat board called disABILITIES. We have become afraid of the word disability, and even within the Community there is still stigma attached to it.
Well, I have decided I am just going to use the word that best describes me. I have a disability. There are things the average human being can do, like walk on a reliable basis, that I cannot do. It is an ability I do not have, therefore a disability.
I am not differently abled – I do not possess super powers. The X-Men are differently abled. I like to think I am “special” and “exceptional” – but let’s face it, those are truly pedantic and demeaning words in most situations. I think I am exceptional due to my intellectual ability, academic achievements, love of my kitty, but none of those have a thing to do with my disability.
And handi-capable just pisses me off. Sorry, but it does. First off, it is a derivative of the word handicapped, which is generally not accepted as Politically Correct anymore. And secondly, really? A made up word, just do people do not have to feel squeamish about admitting that a person really does have a medical condition or injury that renders them unable to do something that average human beings do. I am not handi-capable because I need my wheelchair – I am disabled. I am also of above average intelligence and do not need made up words to deal with my own body.
And let’s face it – that is where all these words come from – people are uncomfortable about the differences in our bodies and how we adapt to the world around us, so words were chosen or even made up to make other people more comfortable. We, as people with disabilities, need to own our bodies. We may not always like them, and at times we are even at war with out own bodies. But they are still ours, still there, and not going anywhere. I am particularly annoyed with my body today as I had things planned that I needed to do, but my body decided I needed to spend the whole day lying down.
Many of us with disabilities know our bodies even more than the average person – we need to – we need to know medical terms and details we wish we could ignore. And that difference makes people around us uncomfortable. There are myriad ways to change this, but let us at least start with owning the accurate term for what we are: disabled. I am disabled. And if someone else is uncomfortable with that, fine, but please do not give me some pedantic name to make yourself feel better.
The term special needs is more difficult. There are many people who have special needs who do not cross over into the realm of disability. For example, a person with food allergies has special needs, but those allergies are generally not disabling. A person can be both disabled and have special needs.
The point, though, is self identification and the respecting of that by others. There is a long history of oppressed, marginalized, or otherwise excluded groups taking terms which may once have been negative and making them a mark of pride. I do this very thing when I identify as queer, a word which was once despised by many in the LGBT community. So, for those of us with a disability, those of us who are disabled, it is okay to use that term. It is definitely okay to correct someone who chooses your term, and therefore your identity, for yourself.
If you want to consider yourself “special needs” or even “handi-capable,” that is your choice, and there should be no judgement in that, But do not allow people to attach the shame and stigma of those synonyms of disabled to you.
We are not helpless, incapable, wrecked, infirm, decrepit. We are not invalid. We are people with disabilities. We are the Disability Community. And we are not ashamed. We are proud.