For as long as I can remember, terms like ‘disability’ or ‘disabled’ were seen as offensive and treated as a pejorative. Describing a person as disabled brought up negative connotations, unintentionally implying that they were lacking in something. To avoid the uncomfortable feelings associated with the phrase (or the reality of) disability, society steered instead towards other terms, like ‘different.’
This new language was, at the time, viewed as much more positive. Like so many others, I myself have used this terminology, both in my personal life and in my work here at IHECP. That was, until I began to see the multitude of studies and disability movements embracing the word ‘disability.’ Rather than viewing the word as a negative connotation, the community at large is now reclaiming it as an empowering identifier.
There are countless individuals and groups who have been speaking out about why they don’t like to be called ‘different’ — and they need us to listen. So I’m listening. Are you?
What’s Wrong With ‘Different’?
The issue with this narrative of ‘different’ is that these languages are often created outside of the disability community by non-disabled people; the terms ‘different’ and ‘special’ are almost never used by those within the community to describe themselves. Although some of these terms were meant to be empowering, this new language to describe people with disabilities ended up being patronizing and dividing — the exact opposite of the inclusivity that was intended.
The language within this community has shifted over time, and ‘disability’ is now the preferred terminology. Many people with disabilities dislike euphemistic language such as ‘different’ because of how it alienates them from the rest of their peers. Disability advocates now promote the use of people-first language, which acknowledges that while an individual’s disability is an important part of their identity, it does not define who they are as a person. Having a disability does not make the person different; it’s a part of who they are as a whole.
In essence, the term ‘disability’ is straightforward and recognizes that there is nothing wrong with a disability or the person claiming it.
Reclaiming Identity Through ‘Disability’
Personally, as I dove into how language affects people with disabilities, I realized the most important thing to do was listen. I need to listen to how the disability community wants to be recognized and I need to understand how vital it is to use their chosen language. People with disabilities want to be heard, understood, and seen as an individual. They don’t want to be known solely for their disability, but they don’t want to be ashamed of it, either. The shift from ‘different’ to ‘disability’ has mirrored movements in the Deaf and LGBTQ communities, where these groups began taking back words that were previously used to harm or demean them, and instead turned them into an empowering way to self-identify.
Different activists may prefer different labels, such as those in the Deaf community who communicate with sign language. They consider themselves to be members of a cultural and linguistic minority group and refer to themselves as Deaf with a capital “D.” Others in the community may prefer to be referred to as hard of hearing or simply as a person who is deaf. No matter how a group or person prefers to be identified, it’s always vital to avoid negative terms such as “victim” or “sufferer,” as they serve only to disempower the person with disabilities.
A person with disabilities does not want to be seen as a victim — they want to be seen as a person who is just as capable of living a happy, meaningful life as anyone else.
Why We Need Respectful Disability Language
Language is powerful, and I want our students to feel empowered instead of feeling different. Here at IHECP, we’re moving away from the idea of ‘difference’ so that our students can be informed and speak up about their needs in terms of disability. By embracing the term ‘disability,’ we’re rejecting the stigma associated with it, and making it easier for people with disabilities to access the resources they need. After all, laws and services available to the community are allocated based on disabilities, not differences. The law that prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities is called the Americans with Disabilities Act, not the Americans with Differences Act.
The subtle distinction between the two is important because using respectful disability language can help improve the visibility of these laws and normalize how our students communicate about them. Not everyone in the disability community uses the same terminology to identify, but the only group who can make these kinds of decisions about language are the people with disabilities themselves. I’m striving to re-educate myself on the use of respectful disability language and the impacts it has on disability culture. My goal at IHECP has always been to empower our students and give them the tools they need to thrive in life. One of the biggest steps we can all take towards this goal is to step away from differences and embrace disability, and to support our students as they empower themselves.