Disabling ‘Disabilities’

Disabling ‘Disabilities’

Words hold power. How and when those words get spoken out into the world hold some sort of significance - that once it’s out there, the possibility of whatever you said seems that much more possible to happen. Words hold power, and as a consequence, so do labels.

As humans, our natural inclination is to organize everything that we see, and label them or sort them into categories. Humans don’t like the unknown, and what better way to eliminate the unknown by identifying what is unfamiliar, and attaching a label to it.

There is a sense of comfort when it comes to knowing and identifying something. It’s hard to just let things be. In today’s world, there is no shortage of labels and categories - we put labels on skin color, on sexuality, on gender, on feelings and also on ability.

Let’s talk about the word disability, and how this simple word became a label for folks that could not do something. When we break the word apart, we have ‘-dis’ and ‘-ability’.

  • ‘-dis’: meaning lack of. 
  • ‘-ability’: meaning state or condition of being able; capacity to do or act.

When we string that together, we get something along the lines of, ‘lack of capacity to be in a certain state or condition’. There’s a stigma around the word disability because it implies there is a lack of something.

A lot of work is being done to destigmatize the word 'disability'! While that’s fantastic, I sometimes feel like there’s too much focus on destigmatizing the word itself, and not enough focus on actually eliminating the barriers that folks with disabilities face. I’m not trying to diminish the importance of the work put into turning the word 'disability' into something that has a positive connotation, rather than a negative one.

Here is an example from a recent discussion that I was a part of. Someone I know, who has a disability, mentioned that in her previous workplace, she was having struggles with walking long distances. She was trying to reach her next meeting several floors up, and she bumped into the person that organized the meeting.

That person asked her what was wrong, and she said, “I’m disabled. I can’t walk long distances due to my disability”. That person got very uncomfortable and stated how she shouldn’t use the word ‘disability’ and that she’s not ‘disabled’. This other person then went on this long spiel of how the word ‘disability’ shouldn’t be used because it implies that folks can’t do a certain thing, and so on and so forth.

The intention of destigmatizing the word is good, but it can be misguided when too much attention is focused on that alone. By admitting that she was disabled, my friend was just matter of a factedly saying that she couldn’t walk long distances, because her condition made it hard for her to do so without experiencing pain. The person that she bumped should have spent less time focusing on the word used, and more time thinking about a way to help prevent this situation again in the future - such as booking a meeting on the same floor as the majority of colleagues.

That weird feeling that most people get when they hear the word ‘disability’ or ‘disabled’ isn’t surprising though! This word was considered a slur and like any other slur, it wasn’t the greatest thing to be referred to as disabled. Back in the 1930s, which really wasn’t that long ago, disabled folks were viewed as defective. The stigma from that word still rears its ugly head today, but not as much as it used to because the work around destigmatizing that word has been done.

Sometimes, it feels like there’s so much pressure to take the word ‘disability’, and to spin it in a positive way - turning ‘disabled’ to ‘enabled’ or ‘able’. There’s not enough pressure on changing the actions behind the reason why folks are ‘disabled’ in today’s world. I understand that, it’s easier to focus on changing the meaning behind the word, than it is to change the actions that made the word possible.

The world is not inclusive, accessible or equitable, and as a result of that, folks that are unable to do certain things in this world are labeled as disabled. The next steps are to shift the focus from the emotional reaction that comes from hearing the word ‘disabled’ and to shift it towards more inclusive actions.

What is one small thing you can do to help create a more inclusive, accessible and equitable world? 

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1 comment

Great insight and perspective on use of words and labels and the associated stigma. So good. Thank you.

Edlyn Thompson

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