The Mighty Logo

Don't Call Disabled People 'Differently Abled'

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

Differently abled. Diverse abilities. All abilities. Diverse needs. Special needs. Handicapable.

If you read that list and felt angry/uncomfortable/annoyed – congrats, you’re probably disabled and/or a semi-decent disability ally.

If you read that list and felt accomplished/proud/helpful – you’re gonna want to read on. I’ll try to be nice, but we disabled people don’t owe you that. If you want to “help” us – get ready to be uncomfortable, get ready to be challenged, and get ready to learn.

For the same reasons that make disability uncomfortable for others to think about (ie. non-disabled people), “disabled” is now considered, by some, to be a bad word. A mean word. An insult. So, to save us poor helpless disabled people, the non-disableds have gifted us so many wonderful alternatives that truly embrace our comprehensive and intersectional identities. Just kidding! They’re pushing alternatives that no one (for the most part) in the disability community actually wants, without our input or request. We’ll get into this later, but speaking over disabled people to tell us our lives are insulting, to sanitize our experiences, to make them more palatable for non-disabled audiences, is patronizing, infantilizing, and just generally infuriating!

I am tired of coddling non-disabled people in their ignorance and degrading attitudes, all so I can warm them up just enough to guide them to the realization that disability isn’t a bad word, while making them feel as though they came to that conclusion all by their non-disabled selves. In disability advocacy, and in life, we have to balance our truth, our experiences, and our dignity with the fragile egos and self-righteous ignorance of people that don’t even try to understand our lives – just to slowly make the world less deadly to us.

I need the onus, the burden, of challenging ableist behaviors to not fall on disabled people. We’re busy! We’re tired! We have other things going on! But at the same time, am I really going to trust a non-disabled person to spearhead allyship initiatives? So while I struggle to balance approachability and the basic truth of my existence, I might get a little heated today – because we aren’t even at the most frustrating part!

Hearing non-disabled people spew their “diverse abilities” rhetoric is bad enough. But when a non-disabled person tells me, a disabled person, to not say the word “disabled”? They don’t only cross the line, they rip it out of the ground. They push the line a mile back and expect the rules to change for them. They literally expect me to accommodate their ignorance, while not even understanding how hard it is to get disability-related accommodations!

And the best (worst) part? This happens most often in my professional capacity! Where I have been specifically requested to educate non-disabled people on just generally sucking less at being a decent human being. When I am invited into a space to educate non-disabled people, I expect some weird questions. I expect some ignorance. But I still never inherently expect the people I have been invited to teach to tell me how to teach them. (A quick props to students, who make up the majority of my audience – you guys are always ready to learn!)

Let’s take a moment to just try and wrap our brains around this experience. I, a disabled person, am being told by non-disabled people to not call myself disabled. While I am expressing my lived experience as a disabled person, I am explicitly policed in how I express myself to make it more palatable to non-disabled people. And I have to ask: why do they think this is appropriate? What do they think they are achieving? What is so bad about being disabled?

It’s a baffling phenomenon! It’s one that I struggle to understand, and one that is impossible to really explain to others. I can’t tell you how it feels when I am told to sanitize, water down, and degrade my lived experience for the sake of the very people contributing to my oppression – because I can’t even wrap my brain around it myself. The same people that speak over disabled people are the ones that claim to be helping us! They’re trying to save us from ourselves, when we don’t need to be saved – we need them to stop threatening our lives.

The entire “differently abled” nonsense is such an efficient proxy for how non-disabled people have co-opted disability movements and organizations. Non-disabled people are not only actively robbing disabled people of opportunities to speak for themselves, they are perpetuating a narrative that denies us the chance to even try! While they actively oppress us, they speak for us – and the kicker is, the majority of people will listen to them. The majority of people will listen to non-disabled people on disability issues before they listen to disabled people. And the majority of people will listen to non-disabled people on disability issues and not even see the problem! They will claim to be allies, to be knowledgeable, to understand – and still not feel the need to actually include disabled people in their learning, in their work, in their organizations.

Many, many more blogs will come about the existential threat that is non-disabled people occupying disabled spaces and actively oppressing us. In short, it kills. It kills disabled people.

We do not have adequate or proportional representation in our democratic institutions – because non-disabled people claim they can speak on our behalf. We do not have adequate or proportional representation in our democratic institutions – and this has allowed for the abomination of continued institutionalization in the 21st century, to the continued use of long-term care homes, to the new forms of institutionalization, sterilization, and degradation that have been deemed charity work. Deemed beneficial.

When my democratically elected government passed a bill on medical assistance in dying – they did not represent me. They did not represent my community. They represent the very same non-disabled people that profit off of my continued oppression, and the ones who genuinely believe I am better off dead.

And when you believe that disabled people are better off dead, of course you are going to think the word “disabled” is an insult.

A few disclaimers, as is traditional. Anyone can identify with whatever labels they want, they can call themselves whatever they like. For labels like neurodivergent, mad, chronically ill, medically fragile – that’s a whole other ballpark. Please do not rope those labels in with diverse abilities.

All disabled people are different – some will prefer differently abled, some will be pro-MAID, some will appreciate the work of non-disabled people. I’m not them – but who am I to tell them how to identify themselves? How to feel? How to think? How to understand the world around them?

But when it comes to non-disabled people and disability? Listen to actually disabled people. Follow their cues. Don’t treat us like monoliths. When in doubt, just ask. But never, never tell us how to express our existence. An existence that you will never fully understand, and one that you may have implicitly contributed to destroying.

Disabled, disabled, disabled.

This story originally appeared on Carly’s blog.
Getty image by Masego Morulane.

Originally published: April 13, 2022
Want more of The Mighty?
You can find even more stories on our Home page. There, you’ll also find thoughts and questions by our community.
Take Me Home