Some thoughts on language and disability

By | February 20, 2020

As writers, publishers, and scholars, we understand how impactful language can be when used in a certain way. Words can start new conversations, influence policy, or spark entire movements. But language can also be used as a barrier, as a way to alienate people or disempower them. To coincide with the recent release of A Cultural History of Disability, our newest addition to the Cultural Histories series, we wanted to discuss language and its usage in the context of disability. 

For centuries, language around disability has been used to create a separation between disabled and non-disabled people. Words and phrases were established and then frequently deployed to place emphasis on the disability itself, using terminology with negative connotations such as impaired, handicapped, challenged, loss of, or suffers from that implied a level of wrongness. Even the word disabled itself defined an entire group of people as less capable, making comparisons in a way that demeaned and marginalized. This focus on the disability as a problem that needed to be fixed or cured is known in academia, and especially in the field of disability studies, as the medical model of disability.

A stigma was formed around disability that has since become ingrained in the fabric of our society through the use of this negative language. Words like retarded, lame, and crazy are common vocabulary among the general public. When this language is coupled with portrayals of disabled people as sad, helpless, and inspirational throughout media and advertising, it forces disabled people to combat stereotypes on a daily basis.

In more recent years, the disabled have come forward and tried to address the problems surrounding this language usage, voicing the offensive nature of these terms and demanding that disability be seen in a different way. By reclaiming words like disabled and cripple, identifying with them, and forming communities around these identities, disabled people have effectively come together and taken control over the power and meaning behind them. Collectively, the disabled have pushed back, shifting the language from can’t to can, from unable to able, and essentially taking the spotlight off of the disability and shining it on the person. Simultaneously, this approach challenges society to be more accommodating and inclusive of people with a wide range of capabilities. This is what has come to be known as the social model of disability, or the concept that it’s the environment, not the individual, that needs to change.

Even among members of the disability community, however, there are debates about how we as a society should talk about disability. For example, some groups have strongly advocated for the use of person-first language—person with a disability as opposed to disabled person—to further stress the importance of recognizing the individual instead of defining them by a single characteristic. Others may choose to say “I am a disabled person” as a way of defining themselves, using disability-first language to claim their disability as a prominent part of their identity.

In addition, there continues to be constant discourse around who does and doesn’t have the right to use sensitive or weighted words to begin with. Is it ever okay to use the word cripple? Is it okay if you have a disability and are identifying as crip yourself or using it to make a point? Is it okay if advocates and activists who aren’t disabled use the word cripple? It comes down to context and intent and understanding, but ultimately it’s a question of who has the power over these words and how are they being used to label other people.  

Overall, the goal in having these conversations and reflecting on our own use of language isn’t merely to change the language itself. It’s not to ask that the world be more politically correct or to force people to speak in a certain way. The goal is to spread awareness, consider new perspectives, and work to understand that people experience the world in a variety of different ways. The language is just a tool to help us get there.


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