Why Words Matter in Disability Identity
I’ve heard this phrase so many times that I often forget what it truly means. When I take the time to think about it, I remember how important language is in expressing our thoughts, feelings, and attitudes. Our choices in the words we use communicates vast amounts of information about who we are, how we perceive the world, and how we treat the people around us and wish to be treated in return.
As a person who has lived experience with disability, I am acutely aware of the various “labels” available to choose from when describing my identity. There is no single all-encompassing word or phrase to identify someone who lives with disability, and each individual makes their own choice. Most people have put a great deal of thought into their choice, and it’s important to respect their reasons for why they chose how they identify.
These are some of the most common words and phrases used to identify a person who lives with disability and what they mean to me:
Person With a Disability
Person first language is one of the ways I choose to identify because my disability does not necessarily define me as an individual. I feel what defines me is more about who I am as a person than the fact that I have a disability. There are several areas of my body that are not fully functional in the way the human body was designed. This makes some tasks more difficult, even impossible, for me compared to a fully functional body. This is why I feel I have a disability, but I am not inherently disabled as an individual.
Based on what I just said, it may seem contradictory that I also identify as a disabled person. It can be argued that “disabled” means non-functional, broken, unusable. When I refer to myself as disabled, I am commenting on how I am impacted by forces outside of myself. There are countless instances where I would be capable of functioning perfectly well, but the environment, systems, perceptions, and attitudes I encounter prevent me from doing so. In these cases, I have essentially been disabled. Therefore: as a wheelchair user, if I am unable to reach the second floor because there is no elevator, I am a disabled person. If I am unable to reach the elevator buttons because of my limited arm mobility, I am a person with a disability.
A hotly debated term, “Crip” (usually capitalized) is derived from the archaic and offensive term “cripple” that was used to describe people with disabilities (usually visible). There has been a recent movement within the disability community to reclaim the word, similar to the LGBTQIA+ community reclaiming the word “queer.” I do not use it to self-identify, but respect the right of others in the disability community to do so, and have been proudly involved in creative projects and performances with Crip in the title.
This is another term that is outdated and often considered offensive. To me, a “handicap” is an impediment or disadvantage, or an imposition placed on a superior competitor as a method of ‘evening out the odds’ in a game or competition. When I hear someone say handicapped bathroom or handicapped parking stall, it makes me wonder if the space itself is somehow disadvantaged in some way. I don’t use this term to refer to myself or others, but again, if someone wishes to use it in reference to themselves, who am I to tell them not to?
…handicapable, challenged, special needs, diffabled. These are euphemisms, most often created and used by non-disabled people, in an effort to be politically correct and avoid causing offense. Some people within this community use these terms to describe themselves because they don’t see themselves as disabled, just different from the norm. However, many people in the disability community find them just as offensive as outright slurs, like crippled. The common consensus is that when non-disabled people use them, it feels condescending and a way to avoid their own general discomfort with disability.
I’m a _______
Some people, for a variety of reasons, do not wish to refer to themselves by as general a term as “disabled.” It may be because they wish to avoid the assumptions that are often made about disability, or because they want to provide a more exact understanding of their personal experiences, or because there is a particular situation for which they are disclosing (job interview, audition, dating profile), etc. Whatever the reason, they prefer to be more specific: I am a wheelchair user. I am a person who lives with CP. I was born with a limb difference.
As you can see, how people choose to identify is often highly personal and communicates a great deal about what they value. Endeavoring to use the preferred term they have indicated sends the message that you respect them and value their rights as an individual. Words matter.
Getty image by Renata Hamuda