To the Little Girl Who Cried When Someone Called Her 'Disabled'

Recently a mother wrote to me after her daughter came home crying because someone close to her referred to her as “disabled.” Distraught as to how to console her daughter, but also confused as to why this word would hurt so much, the mother asked for my insight. This is what I wrote to her:

My heart breaks for your daughter, because I know exactly how she feels. The reason it hurts is because the word “disabled” has such a negative connotation, both in its literal meaning and in terms of what society thinks about people and children living with a disability. In many subtle and blatant ways, we are often treated and thought of as inferior, useless, weak, incapable, charity cases, unable, strange, deformed, embarrassing, not normal, shameful, etc. These mistruths are so difficult to break down. Even when we know they are not true about ourselves, it still hurts when people put us down, intentionally or unintentionally — especially when it is someone close to us.

I am so sorry this happened to both you and your daughter. Sadly, it won’t be the last time, but hopefully together we can set the stones to pave the path so one day it doesn’t. Another reason why being called “disabled” hurt her feelings may be because in her mind and heart, she is just herself. It may make her feel that just being herself is not good enough, and cause her to question herself. Tell her that I too have moments when people make me sad or self-conscious about my physical limitations or the way I walk. But I don’t let it sting too long, because I know people who use words to hurt others are often hurting inside themselves, and can’t see me for who I am. What they are thinking and feeling really has nothing to do with me.

Here’s another way your daughter can look at it. The disability is not her cerebral palsy or the physical or cognitive impairments she might have. The “disability” is the intersection between those impairments and the barriers society and people put in front of her that make it more challenging to engage fully in every aspect of her life — not only physically, but socially and with a happy and confident disposition. The disability is not her cerebral palsy, it is the environmental barriers and the stigma and discrimination of others that make her feel bad, excluded, hurt and sad.

Looking at disability this way, where it is not the person but rather our environments that are disabled is called the Human Rights approach. This is how UNICEF works in this field. We always put the person first. So your daughter is not a disabled child. She is a child who lives with a disability. Does this make sense? And the fact that she does it with such prowess and sunshine makes her the champion she is. Any person who has the courage, confidence and maturity to ask others for help when they are in a moment of need is very powerful. They are going to bring a lot of good energy and love to their own life and to the lives of those around them.

Let me share with you that my beloved father, who blames himself for my condition, has taken years to learn how to talk about what is happening to me. Once, as we walked through a crowd, he said “Excuse us, we have a problem here. Please make some room.”

I immediately sat him down and explained, “Daddy, I am not a problem, and neither is my wobble. The day that I can no longer make you laugh is when we have a problem.”

He felt ashamed because he did not realize what he was implying, nor how it might make me feel. My father is my guiding grace, my everything; I revere and adore him. And because I love him so much and I know he loves me, I don’t get mad at him when he does not know the right words to use. I share with him what I too am learning day by day about this incredible journey.

So my last piece of advice, that I am so humbled you would reach out to me to request, is to encourage your daughter to educate the person who called her disabled, maybe in a letter or over the phone. Teach her the right words to use to describe cerebral palsy, and what disability really is. Let your daughter choose the words — words that make her feel proud to be unique and sensational just as she is.

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