Today I would like to talk about another pet peeve of mine: being called “differently abled” or “handicapable”.
You might be wondering why this offends me, when only last week I posted an article in which one of the main points was that I’m not often offended as a disabled person. Since these terms don’t paint disability in a negative light and actually highlight a person’s capabilities, aren’t they positive terms to use? I (and many other disabled people) say otherwise. They immediately warrant an eye-roll.
The thing is, people assume that using these terms is a sign of respect towards disabled people, but most of us see it as an attempt to candy coat our reality. The terms differently abled and handicapable were coined by people who were nondisabled. Staying true to the phrase “nothing about us without us”, (which was a strong motto for people with disabilities during the Disability Rights Movement) disabled people want to decide for themselves what language should be used when referring to them.
This isn’t the only (or even the most important) issue though. Many people with disabilities are proudly disabled, and don’t see their impairments as a defect. Disabilities are an element of diversity, and they are a reality. Therefore, nondisabled people referring to disabled people as differently abled often sends the message that it is the nondisabled themselves who are uncomfortable with facing the reality of disability.
Think of it this way: I don’t have a problem with not being able to see. I have a problem with society being discriminatory towards me because I can’t see, and I have a problem with environments, reading material (whether digital or hard copy) and appliances that are designed with only nondisabled people in mind. So if acknowledging that I am disabled (my eyes literally don’t work) in and of itself isn’t a problem to me, why is it a problem to you?
No amount of flowery language is going to change the reality of the fact that one of my senses is missing, but I’m totally okay with that. I hardly ever fall on my face because I’ve learned great reflexes, and I can echo-locate (the trained ability to use sounds reflecting off objects to form a mental picture of my environment). Sure, that means that I am able to achieve the same result that a sighted person can through employing a “different” strategy, but being disabled and acknowledging it doesn’t mean that I consider myself to be unable to do anything at all, or to be less capable. I am simply capable, not handicapable.
As I have expressed before, what bugs me about life as a disabled person is linked to inaccessibility, exclusion and discrimination. Making use of the “differently abled and handicapable” rhetoric distracts from, and minimises the experiences of disabled people in daily life. It allows the conversation to return to how terribly inspirational a wheelchair user is for just getting to a job interview on time, being confident and positive and presenting well. It distracts from the fact that that wheelchair user might have had to leave the house an hour earlier to be on time for that interview, because they realise that their path to the location might be blocked by cars parked right across the pavement and they might need to double back and take a longer way, or because there might not be lifts or ramps in and around the building, meaning that they would have to make another plan to get where they need to be. That wheelchair user (though possibly resourceful and good at problem-solving) is still facing societal barriers to their progress. Society should still be expected to accommodate them better, regardless of how skilled they are at working around those barriers.
Then there is the matter of community and identity. Interestingly, some disabled people who do not incorporate disability into their sense of identity (sometimes by trying to hide or minimise it to fit in with nondisabled society) and who do not really associate with other disabled people do prefer the flowery “differently abled” terminology. However, many disabled people such as myself have found it hugely beneficial to associate with others who share their experiences, to form part of a disabled community that shares ideas, supports one another and works together towards greater equality, and to incorporate this into their sense of identity. My community (which spans over many continents) refers to itself as the disability community. We claim our disabilities proudly, and we have a culture.
We are no different (in that sense) from people of colour who might incorporate their race and the culture that comes with it into their sense of identity, or queer people who choose to be part of the LGBTQ+ community and attend pride rallies etc. Just as you are minimising the experiences of black people and distracting from racial issues that should be addressed by saying “I don’t see colour”, refusing to use the word disability can be seen as disrespectful. It is basically saying to us that we are totally equal in society, as long as we are innovative and hard-working enough. The only disability is not, I repeat not, a bad attitude.
On the flip side, you are actually respecting us by calling us disabled, instead of imposing another term on us, because we have chosen to call ourselves disabled and we don’t see it as anything to be ashamed of.
South Africa has some very negative history, as most people know. Yet, we are an extremely beautiful country, we are working towards a better future, and we are a strong, resilient and (we have been told) friendly people.
Many years from now, I look forward to a time in South Africa where the playing field is completely equal, and where the injustices in our history no longer severely effect generations of black people. Perhaps when that time comes, we will do away with the racial tick boxes on forms, and recognise that race is a social construct that no longer serves us to the same degree as before in some senses. Just as this may come to be, there may come a time when environments are designed with all bodies in mind, and where perceptions around what our bodies and minds can and cannot do are just another way in which we are diverse. However, when that time comes, I hope we don’t lose sight of our amazing diverse cultures, including both ethnic cultures and the disability culture.
Like my country, my disability has its setbacks, but I am entirely comfortable with it overall. My disability is not a tragedy. I am proudly South African, and I am proudly disabled.