Don’t roll your eyes, I know that the issue of how to refer to people with a disability is one that the disabled community is tired of debating. But as well as simply sharing my own opinion on the matter, I thought I’d do something slightly different by also sharing my personal experience with different terms growing up: When I was a child, I used to refer to my condition as a disease or illness. When someone asked why I walked differently, I would reply: “because I have an illness.” It may sound awful but it was back in the days before I had received my diagnosis, before anyone knew what was wrong with me. Although I’m sure my family and I weren’t aware of it back then – It was a way of denial, as if calling it an illness might make me wake up the next morning and be cured of walking differently, just like being cured of a cold or the flu. It was when I was given my first wheelchair at around the age of eight when my family and I first started using the term ‘disabled’.
However, at around the age of twelve, my mum read a story online about a mother who had stood up against someone who had called her child disabled. The mother in the story claimed that although their child was presented with more physical challenges in life, they still faced the challenges head-on and didn’t cause them to not be able to do certain things, therefore rendering them physically-challenged not disabled. The question that this story brings to me now is whether or not the disabled child would call themselves physically-challenged by their own accord. Probably not. My mum was inspired by this story to start using the term physically-challenged and convinced me that the term disabled was too negative and therefore bad to use as well. To be honest, I didn’t mind either way and so switched to using the term physically-challenged because she told me to.
But recently I’ve decided to stop using the term physically-challenged, so recently that I’ve had to go back and edit the word out of some posts I’d already written for this blog. I decided not to use the term after the first time that I truly thought about it myself. While disabled may seem negative, there’s no point dancing around the fact that I’m not like others and that, yes, my life is tougher than most, with slightly patronising terms such as ‘physically-challenged’ or ‘special needs’.
I made the decision suddenly, in the middle of writing a blog post, sitting at an empty desk at my school’s library. The term ‘physically-challenged’ just didn’t seem right anymore. On the way to class after the lunch break was over I said the phrase “I am disabled” to myself over and over. Although the phrase felt alien in my mouth, like a morsel that hadn’t been comfortably broken down to a swallow-able size yet, it felt right. It made me feel independent and empowered to have made my own choice on a term to use and to have developed my own opinion on it. Before I didn’t care what I called it, but I realised then that it did matter whether I was going to hide behind verbal denial when it came to my disease or own up and gain just a little bit more pride in who I was.
The Results: Disabled vs. Physically-Challenged and Other Such Terms
Bottom line, most people with disabilities find terms such as physically-challenged, special needs or handicapped too patronising. Disabled is the official term used for things like the Paralympics, the news and in the British government and I would therefore count it as the safest term to use. It can sometimes get confusing though based on where you live. I know in America the term ‘little people’ is favoured by most dwarves (e.g. the reality TV series Little Women: Atlanta), however, in England where I’m from most dwarves find this term too patronising and simply prefer the term ‘dwarves’.
My own opinion is that IT SHOULDN’T BE CONFUSING. The reality is, there is no one term out there for disabled people which no one finds offensive – This is truly a shame. In a certain way, we need to get over ourselves and stop thinking we’re morally superior for referring to disabilities as X for whatever reason instead of X. At first, I was too scared to start this blog because I knew some people would be uncomfortable with the term ‘disabled’ but what other term could I have used that no one would find uncomfortable? I admit that I cannot speak for them personally but it seems as if the LGBTQIA+ community have themselves together when it comes to terms – Although figuring out your own identity may be challenging, when you do figure it out there is a perfect, polished term waiting for you to use. Black people may be called African-American or dark-skinned but overall they never seem to make such a fuss over terms as the disabled community does (and that I can say based on experience). I understand that most of these terms are made by able-bodied people who have confused everything by not wanting to offend us and I understand it gets slightly more tricky when it comes to medical conditions but we really aren’t doing ourselves any favours by dwelling on this so much. We tend to be more socially isolated than most because people find it hard to understand us. Why should we make it harder for them by even complicating how they should refer to us by making it so confusing?
My advice to all disabled people and those experienced with being around them is to not condemn a disabled person, judge them or start thinking less of them for using a term you don’t agree with. And if an able-bodied person is using a term that really makes you uncomfortable just ask them kindly to stop.
And my advice to all able-bodied people would be to respect that decision (I once had a nurse who refused to stop calling me handicapped and a friend who thought I was being pompous for not wanting her to call me a cripple) And try not to be too patronising when it comes to terms to call us, if we can survive living life with our conditions then I’m pretty sure we can survive you calling us disabled.