As far back as I can remember I’ve always known I’ve had a connection to the word ‘disabled’. I heard the word used by my parents, teachers, medical professionals and even strangers when they referred to me.
‘Disabled’ seemed to be the word that let people know that I was born with osteogenesis imperfecta, used a wheelchair, visited hospitals a lot, went to physiotherapy once a week and had a teaching assistant to support me during class.
I knew ‘disabled’ meant I was different in some way, but for me, I was just Samantha.
I never challenged it or have ever felt defined by it in any way either, to be honest, I didn’t really think about what the word meant to me, that is until I began work as a campaigner and started my career in television and media, where I became increasingly mindful of the choice of language I used to describe others.
I recognised that the words we use about other people say a lot about the way we see each other and ourselves.
The words we use to describe different groups of people can have an enormous impact on the way people are seen and treated by others within society and a negative label can be internalised and hold negative consequences for the person being labelled.
We can see this in particular when we look at the trans community and the importance of using correct gender pronouns, for example.
The same respect and acknowledgement should, therefore, extend to those within the disabled community, who have throughout history seen language used to belittle, humiliate and degrade them at times.
True, we have seen the extinction of some of the most degrading words associated with disability – cripple, deaf and mute, Untermenschen (subhumans).
And we shudder at the thought of them ever actually being used to describe human beings, yet I wonder in 10, 20, 50 years from now with the future generations shudder at our use of the word ‘disabled’?
Is the word actually so dated that we should be using different terminology and remove ‘dis’ from ’disability’ as comedian Adam Hills suggests by calling us ‘mutants’, or shall we just leave it as it is? Does the word ‘disabled’ mean more to the community in a way of pride and identity rather having negative connotations?
Suggestions of eradicating the word ‘disabled’ have been around for some time now and most certainly gained momentum around the 2012 Paralympics.
Having a word that, if taken literally denotes the inability to do something, is used to describe some of our finest athletes leaves something amiss but changing a word overnight is no easy task, with so many opposing views on the subject.
One theory that must be taken into consideration when looking at the word ‘disability’ and its definition is the social model of disability which identified impairment and disability as two completely separate entities.
Disabled people use the term ‘impairment’ to talk about their medical condition or diagnosis or description of their functioning.
On the other hand, ‘disability’ describes the social effects of impairment namely attitudinal and physical barriers.
I am Samantha Renke (person) who has osteogenesis imperfecta (impairment) when discrimination and barriers (the disability) are removed from society I will no longer be ‘disabled’ however I will still have my impairment.
For many the term, ‘disabled’ has become positive and empowering, as it denotes the recognition of oppression.
If we use the word ‘disabled’ to identify that I am disabled by attitudes, I am disabled by physical barriers such as stairs, lack of accessible bathrooms or television programmes that do not use captions.
It recognises disability as a social oppression something that is external to the person. More importantly, it also identifies that in fact, something within society has to change and has to address the attitudinal and physical barriers the disabled community faces on a daily basis.
When it comes to the word ‘disabled’ the jury is still out. Many of whom I have spoken to have taken ownership of the word and it has, in fact, empowered them.
There is most certainly a sense of disability pride which I too over the years have come to cherish. I am certainly proud to be part of the disabled community and in fact so many of my greatest accomplishments, memories and life experiences have derived from the fact that I was born with osteogenesis imperfecta and hand on heart if I had to do it all again, I wouldn’t change who I am, ‘disability’ and all.
Others would like to see a change and have started to favour person first language, a person with a disability, or ‘differently-abled,’ but that is still not widely adopted.
Language isn’t there to confuse, isolate or embarrass anyone who may use the ‘incorrect’ term and non-disabled shouldn’t use language as an excuse to isolate those within the disabled community out of fear of putting their foot in it.
As research conducted by the charity SCOPE identified that a staggering three quarters (78 per cent) of Brits said that they would not be comfortable speaking about disability in front of a disabled person.
Personally rather than changing the word ‘disability’ I’d much prefer to see society as a whole starts to understand that its not all doom and gloom for those living with an impairment but in fact something to feel proud, to take ownership of and to acknowledge that lives like my own are equally as fulfilling and joyous as everyone else’s.
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