Time and time again, we get to witness a debate about whether it is okay to say that someone is disabled. This recently happened on Twitter and the disabled community has been very vocal in explaining why policing the language they use to describe themselves is ableist.
I went through all the replies from the thread as well as some additional sources and tried to write a summary of the various points that surfaced. I thought I’d write a short post I can link to when answering: “is it fine to say ‘disabled’?”
Short answer: yes. Not only we can, but we also should. And we should stay away from ableist variants like “differently abled”, “invalid”, “handicapable” or “with special needs” (a mistake I have done in the recent past as well).
Long answer: Over the last few years/decades, there were a lot of discussions about whether or not it is okay to say that someone is “disabled.”
Some (typically non-disabled) people think of “disabled” as a pejorative, a somewhat dirty or shameful word which supposedly stigmatizes people with disabilities. The problem with that narrative is that it often centers non-disabled people’s feelings and their discomfort with disability. One should be able to acknowledge that an individual is unable to perform a certain action without thinking of it in a negative way. It’s not a slur, it’s not shameful, it doesn’t make people lesser.
Using the term “differently abled” is a condescending attempt at suggesting that disabled people do not in fact have disabilities but different abilities. That is not how things work. Unlike the typical representation in media, being disabled doesn’t come with compensatory skills and aptitudes. When someone is disabled, there are things they cannot or struggle to do, period.
Moreover, everyone has varying and different abilities but that doesn’t mean that everyone is disabled. Reducing disability to “varying abilities” erases a lot of disabled people’s experiences.
To summarize, the problem with shying away from the word “disabled” is twofold:
It undermines the severity of the disability, and how significantly it can impact people’s life. Blindness is not a “different ability.” It’s the absence of ability to see. It’s a disability, and implying otherwise is patronizing and disrespectful.
It risks slowing down support. Disability does not happen in a vacuum: it relates to the environment in which people live. The only way for society to provide support in regards to these difficulties is by acknowledging that some inviduals are disabled in the first place. As long as we will push the “differently abled” narrative (or other similar labels), accommodation and reform might be slow to come.
On that note, Christiane Link rightfully points out that people are disabled by the environment, by attitudes and structural discrimination. Therefore, disability isn’t so much about deficits. Disabled people often do things differently and are very much used to find solutions others never had to find. That’s actually a skill.
Ultimately, we shouldn’t try to sugar-coat or glorify disabilities. They exist, and we have to acknowledge them. By large, the disabled community is comfortable with that word and uses it to identify and describe themselves. If a disabled person tells you they prefer you use another qualificative when mentioning then, of course do so. Until then, using “disabled people” is a good and safe choice of words.
There is a lot of discussion between identity-first (e.g. “disabled person”) versus person-first (e.g. “person with a disability”) language, with no explicit consensus. The first promotes a social model of disability, while the latter reflects a more medical model of disability. Which to use might depend on context and interlocutor, and in doubt, it’s always better to ask. That being said, the existence of both approaches in no way invalidates everything we’ve seen before. Both are significantly better than ableist alternatives.
Kind thanks to Eric Eggert, Ioanna Talasli, Ariel Burone and Christiane Link for their insightful review.