How a person with a disability chooses to talk about disability or identify with it is an important conversation, but it may not be one that will impact much change in the hearts and minds of the so-called ‘ignorant’ non-disabled.
Language of identification seems to be a discussion that just won’t go away. This comes as no surprise, how people choose to identify is a deeply rooted and basic right, and the disability community is one that is constantly fighting to preserve the rights of its people, but the tension amongst some groups tends to boil over at times.
That tension can be counter-productive at times, and in the eyes of some, it matters little in comparison to other the discussions being had surrounding other areas of the disability rights movement.
The question then becomes, does it really matter how a person with a disability chooses to identify or talk about disability?
The short answer is yes, but it is everybody’s personal right to determine how they label their disability/condition/impairment in any space. Nobody should be told, especially by another disabled person, how to identify or what language is the correct to use when talking about issues impacting the disability community.
Within that community is a diverse amount of beliefs, some think of language and identification as ultra-important, while others think it’s an argument with no real depth.
Playing devils’ advocate for a moment, I’ve met plenty of non-disabled who often express to me their deep fear about language when it comes to me, ‘the disabled person’. They say that they are scared and don’t know how to talk about disability or how to approach it when confronted by it in public.
One person I spoke to this week about the subject of language and disability made some really good points that further confirmed a thought I’ve had for a long time about how the invisibility of disabled learners in school tends to aid the confusion and fear for non-disabled later in life.
“I’ve never had personal experience with disability at all, so how do I know the correct way of talking about it? Most of those kids were in the special unit at school and we never saw them.”
Some people I’ve spoken to had gone through their entire lives without ever experiencing a connection with a disabled person in any shape or form until having a conversation with me.
Can we really blame them for their ignorance? Of course not, disability is not an understood or desired part of mainstream society. The latter shouldn’t be a priority, disabled people shouldn’t be desired based on disability alone but they should be accepted as a part of the norm, regardless of whatever disability they have.
The words disability and disabled were mentioned four times in that last paragraph alone. It isn’t the word that is the issue, rather the thoughts associated with it.
Stop Trying To Control The Language About Disability
The point is that for those of us who experience disability, trying to control the narrative about disability is completely impossible to achieve. Furthermore, why is it our right to decide how we are looked at and talked about?
That’s where the ‘nothing about us without us’ terminology has real problems with me.
Some disability advocates want to have it both ways, change the labels and the language, as well as the thoughts that come as a consequence of it. But there is no certainty that the thoughts associated with disability by the ignorant will change, there isn’t even any proof that it would help a little bit.
Much of these conversations serve to make disabled people feel better about themselves, and perhaps that leads to the biggest question of all, why do we place so much personal emphasis on how we are officially described?
There is no real proof that a change in the official description would make us feel better about ourselves because it’s only ever been a discussion that’s occurred within the disability community for the most part.
The answer to increased participation and inclusion in mainstream society for disabled people isn’t found with how they choose to identify within or outside of the disability community, it sits with the ideals associated with the very sight of them, ideals that often aren’t triggered until being confronted by them.
For us, the disabled, trying to enforce a certain type of language doesn’t address that. Identify how you choose, do what you choose, but don’t expect everyone else to beat to the same drum.
Michael Pulman is a wheelchair-bound journalist, blogger, video producer, and public speaker based in Hamilton, New Zealand.