Hello world! I’m still around. I’m just also arguably an overly ambitious silly person going through a premature midlife crisis at 30, and trying to balance a full-time job (yes it’s still the job as a writer in which I clearly still haven’t learned to be succinct), building a business on the side (no it’s not an MLM), and doing my first Masters degree (yes I do intend to do at least one more after this). Aside from still being around, I’m still proudly disabled, and I don’t intend to stop writing this blog as part of my disability advocacy efforts.
In this post, I’m going to go on a little bit more about why the word “disabled” is not a curse word. For my previous post on the topic, check out the post titled Disabled and Proud, without the “Still”. I will start with a discussion of person first versus identity first language, after which I’m going to embark on a bit of a semantic tangent about why the word “disable” is not the opposite of “able”. I’ll conclude with a bonus opinion on why “special needs” aren’t all that special.
So what do I mean by person first versus identity first? Person first language in relation to disability is exactly what it sounds like. It is when the person is mentioned before the disability, as in “person with a disability”, “person with a visual impairment” etc. Identity first language is when the disability is mentioned first, as in “disabled person”, “blind person” etc. Proponents of person first language argue that disabled people are people first, and are not defined by their disability. Proponents of identity first language argue that their disability is a core part of who they are, and often they identify as part of the disabled community.
There is no right or wrong answer in terms of which to use, but preferences differ according to who you ask. Although there have been some recent surveys that have shown that there is a general preference for identity first language in the disability community, I would like to emphasise again that we are not a homogenous group, so what I said about “depending on who you ask” is key here, in that it’s a good idea to ask the individual you intend to talk or write about. The general consensus, however, is that person first and identity first can be used interchangeably.
Personally, I’m also comfortable with person first and identity first being used interchangeably. I do have a slight preference for identity first though, although person first would in no way offend me. However, here are my reasons for mostly referring to myself as a disabled or blind person instead of a person with a disability or a person who is blind:
- It just feels less clunky. It’s quicker and more succinct to say or write “disabled person” instead of “person with a disability”, (see, I care about being succinct sometimes) especially if you’re going to be saying or writing it a lot.
- I’m not ashamed of it, so it doesn’t need to be an afterthought. Yes, I am a whole person, and my personality doesn’t revolve around my disability. I just happen to be blind. However, if I’m comfortable with being called a blonde woman instead of a person who has blonde hair, a Game of Thrones fan instead of a person who is a fan of Game of Thrones, or a cat lover instead of someone who likes cats a lot, then I’m fine with blind or disabled person.
- It is part of my identity. Having been disabled all my life, it absolutely has played a role in the experiences that have made me who I am. My disability has taught me to be innovative and resilient. That’s positive. Societal discrimination and stigma has also probably partially contributed to my internalised desire to prove myself or to conceal certain emotions, and that’s not so positive. But the positive, the negative and the neutral are what make me a whole, authentic person.
- I consider myself to be part of an international disabled community. This is a community of disabled people who stand in solidarity with one another, take control of the narrative surrounding disability, advocate for disability rights, and sometimes even take collective action to engage in disability politics. This community claims the term “disabled”, and we identify as such.
Now, on to my mini semantic rant. Some might argue that “disabled” has a negative connotation, and this is why they prefer person first language. I’m not going to repeat my previous arguments about why being “disabled” is not an inherently bad thing. This time I’m going to talk about the actual word. The opposite (antonym) of “able” is not “disable”, and so if someone is disabled, it doesn’t mean they are not able. The opposite of “able” is actually “unable”, and they are both adjectives. On the other hand, “disable” is a verb, and the opposite of “disable” is “enable”.
The fact that “disable” and “enable” are verbs are the crux of my argument. If you think of a button on a website that is disabled, it means that some outside force caused the able button to no longer function as intended. If a machine such as an ATM is disabled, it means that it was designed to work, but that something caused it to break or malfunction. In the case of someone who is disabled, I argue that they are disabled by a society that is not inclusive. Inaccessible environments, for example, are the outside forces that cause people with specific bodies and needs not to be able to fully participate in society in the same ways that nondisabled people can. For a wheelchair user, a building with lifts and ramps is enabling, as is an accessibly designed website to a blind person. The wheelchair user is unable to walk, and the blind person is unable to see, but neither are unable to function. Society and environments (forces outside of the disabled person) are the real barriers to their full and equal participation,, hence disabling them.
Okay, so if I am disabled by a society that doesn’t take my diverse needs into consideration, why do I not use the term “special needs”? This could be a whole discussion on its own, but partly because accommodation is not inclusion. An accommodation at school, for example, would be if a blind person were to be assigned an assistant to sit in class with them and explain what the teacher is pointing out on the board. Inclusion would be if the teacher were to adjust their teaching methods to include all students, and no longer engage in practices such as just pointing at what they’re trying to draw attention to.
I’m not arguing that all accommodations should be thrown out the window, but I am arguing that the goal should be inclusion. For the focus to be on inclusion, we need to get rid of this idea that some people’s needs are “normal”, and other people’s needs are “special”. Nondisabled student X might need access to female hygiene products, whereas disabled student Y might not. This doesn’t make student X’s needs special, and just because student Y is disabled and has needs too doesn’t mean his needs are special either. They’re just needs. Everyone has needs.
So, in conclusion, I’m still in favour of referring to myself (and having others refer to me) as “disabled”, and I prefer this above anything else. I also still do acknowledge that opinions differ, and I don’t speak for all people with disabilities. But, as evidenced by me finally breaking my silence in 2023 to come and drop a couple of opinions here, I still have them, and I’m still unapologetically disabled and proud.