Wednesday, November 29

The language of disability


THE terminologies related to disability are still evolving. We have not reached a consensus where the terms we use are universally acceptable by everyone. Depending on a person’s orientation, what is offensive to some is acceptable to others. Nonetheless, I have a distinct preference for the words and phrases that I use when it comes to talking about disability matters.

My peers have asked me why I am still fussing over semantics when I should be putting in effort to solve the real problems. I believe that it is important for me to establish a positive image of myself in the advocacy work that I do. How I see myself is magnified in how other people see me. It is a political stand I take to elucidate the difficulties that disabled people face in society.

I am a proponent of the Social Model of Disability. This model is of the view that people are disabled by inequality and social exclusion. It identifies the causes of these problems. They are man-made barriers created through omission, ignorance, prejudice and discrimination in attitudes and actions. The removal of these barriers can greatly improve our well-being and allow us to become independent, and enjoy opportunities and choices like other members of society.

The Social Model of Disability makes a distinction between impairment and disability. They do not mean the same. Impairment is the loss of sensory, physical or mental functions of the body from congenital causes, injuries or diseases. On the other hand, disability is participation restriction in society that is caused by various forms of external barriers.

For example, I have spinal cord injury. I cannot walk. That is an impairment. I use a wheelchair for mobility. Disability occurs when I cannot get into the cinema to watch a movie because it has no ramp at the entrance. Putting a ramp for me to enter will remove that disability. It is as simple as that. Of course, this is looking at one problem in isolation. The cinema may have other barriers that cause disabilities and these may have to be removed as well.

The term persons with disabilities is used in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. However, the world body also takes the stand that: “Disability is not something that resides in the individual as the result of some impairment.” It further adds that, “Disability resides in the society not in the person.” Persons with disabilities is used here for the sake of expediency in the absence of a term that is acceptable to all.

People who subscribe to the Social Model of Disability prefer disabled persons. It is taken to mean that persons are disabled by barriers in society which is exactly what is happening. On the contrary, persons with disabilities puts the ownership of disabilities on the individuals. Their impairments are the cause of the disabilities they experience.

Persons with disabilities gained prominence with the emergence of the People First Language movement. According to its manifesto, the person should come before the condition. This is to preserve the dignity of the persons concerned as we are not our conditions and should not be identified as such. That, I totally agree with. However, “persons with impairments” is a more fitting term to that end as it has been established that disability is not in the person but in society.

Some other terms like handicapped, wheelchair-bound, the disabled and differently-abled are used frequently in conversations and printed materials. Handicapped is an archaic term that is no longer used to refer to disabled persons. Its usage brings to mind a sense of pity, helplessness and inferiority. At the same time, accessible parking and accessible toilet are preferred over handicap parking or disabled toilet. These facilities are made to be usable by disabled persons; hence they are accessible to us.

When I first sat in a wheelchair, I saw it as a shackle. It felt like I was serving a long prison sentence. Over the years, I have come to appreciate the freedom and independence I gained. It has allowed me to travel to places I otherwise would not be able to because of tetraplegia. I no longer see myself as being bound to the wheelchair. It is the very tool that liberates me. In that sense, wheelchair user is more acceptable.

The use of “the disabled” as a collective noun is considered a form of social segregation. Disabled persons is the better choice as we are very much a part of mainstream society too. The term differently-abled actually focuses on the impairments of the person. All of us are differently-abled which makes it redundant. But the reason eludes me on why it is applied specifically on disabled persons.

The opposite of disabled persons is neither able-bodied nor normal. That term is an expression of the difficulties we face. There are double leg amputee Paralympians who can outrun most people on this planet. Who then is more able-bodied in this case? On the same note, having impairments is not an abnormality. It is part of life and living. When there is a need to mention people without impairments in relation to disabled people, non-disabled persons should be used instead.

While it took me several hours to write this piece, I spent a good many years trying to figure out the terms that are acceptable and appropriate, and those that are not. It is not about political correctness. It is about our struggle. It is about self-respect. I must also emphasise that I am not saying that it is wrong to use one term over another. These are not the absolutes. It is a matter of values and perspectives. And these are mine.

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