Let’s talk about disability, seriously

For a while now I have been thinking about the word we usually use to talk about disability and to refer to the disabled people. This is not just out of linguistics curiosity but because I do think that the term we use is relevant. Not only there are some terms more hideous than others, such as handicapped or crippled, that do not deserved any comments, but because I think that the terms used might have an effect, negative or positive, in social integration. I wanted to choose my new option as an new year resolution, but this choice it’s been hard.

There is one thing clear; I am a person who thinks that the person must come first. I think that we must talk about “people or person with disability” and not about “disabled”. This is because to label somebody as a disabled involve leaving out all the other characteristics that they have as a human being, for example that they have a valid opinion just like ours, that they have feelings, just as valid as ours. This is based on the prototypes theory that you can read forward in this post (it is in spanish though).

Even so, “disabled” do not convince me yet. There have been many proposals: different capacities, functional diversity, even “super powers”. As  parents we focus on their capacities, but in my opinion, this terms do not mean anything to the rest of the world. An argument that opposes this is the following, what would happened if this terms were used to legislate, many people that is not disabled might be included if the term “different capacities” is used.

An argument in favor of using “person with disability” is that in 2001 the World Health Organization, along with many other similar organizations and linguists, wrote a document called “International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health (ICF)”. In this document it is decided, among other things, that we should stop saying “handicapped”, instead we should use “person with disabilities”. This agreement was signed by 191 countries.

I do not know if it is the linguist in me or the rebel, but it is hard for me to relieve that a Word or term can prevail this way and it is even harder to accept when it is from the WHO. Besides, reading the document gets me on my nerves. First, “disability” is defined as an opposite of functioning and, to certain point, also opposite to Health. It is classified by different “problem” degrees, and it says, explicitly, that in order to define “problems” we have to compare abilities with what we consider normal. What can I say? To me this is a reason to avoid using the Word “disability”.

I think that the only people who can decide what word to use are people with disabilities. Luckily, the past few decades they have put forward their opinion in texts and in real movements. To us, who lived in this part of the world, might seem incredible that, already in the sixties there was a movement called Independent Life that defended the rights of people with disabilities. Then a “social model” to understand and refer to disability came up, one that opposed the medical model that it seems, is leading still this days.

The funny part is that English–speaking people, like Brisenden or Watson-Hyatt (my favorite, personally) prefer “person with disability” while Spanish-speaking people show in favor of “functional diversity”. So we are back at the beginning, what can we do?

I learned sometime ago that a big difference between population with disability and other minorities is that the first group were not born in a family that belonged to the same ‘minority’. What is the importance of this? Family is the first circle of social integration, and if the family shares the condition is possible that feelings of pride, of belonging can be appreciated and our peculiarities can be valued. Generally, a person with disability is born in a family without disabilities, and this family knows only social prejudices about it.

Where am I going with all this? Well I think that we should called things by its name and not to change the term “disability” but to change the negative connotations that society has given it. In order to do that we should stand up and proudly say the word disability, let the rest of the people know that this is not something we should be sorry or ashamed, that diversity is part of our life, that we are all very different and our peculiarities can also be wonderful. Because trying to hide the reality is worse. I’ll still be talking about “disability” and I will still be writing and sharing so this way a change happens in our heads when speaking about disability.

Further reading and interesting comments in Glenda Watson-Hyatt’s reply to this post: “What’s in a word? The evolution of disability language continues“.



  1. […] reading here: Let's talk about disability, seriously « Mamaterapeuta goes bilingual! Share and […]

  2. Barbara said

    In this video the speaker addresses the word ‘disabled’ in a profound way.

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