I don’t like that I’m not supposed to say that I’m disabled. I was told recently that what I’m supposed to say is “person living with a disability.” I was told this by a healthy person with healthy privilege. Something is not right here.
I don’t know for sure, but I’d bet my cat on the idea that a healthy person coined the idea of “people living with disabilities.”
I am completely supportive of trying to make the world a kinder place, and if saying only “a person living with a disability” instead of “a disabled person” is what we need to do to make people with disabilities (which I am not opposed to saying as long as “disabled person” is still something people can call themselves) feel more accepted, safe or supported, I will do it. But I will not give up my right to call myself disabled.
The word “disabled” is incredibly powerful to me. It took me years to accept that I am truly limited in a way that most people aren’t. Before I accepted that I was disabled, I measured my life against healthy standards instead of standards that are realistic for someone with my disorders. Because I did not yet acknowledge that I am not fully average or normal, I consistently failed to meet my own expectations for what I considered a meaningful existence. It was fairly awful and led to constant, powerful disappointment in myself.
When I finally accepted that I am disabled, that word, with all of its negative connotations, gave me relief. I could finally measure myself according to very shitty standards. I could be realistic. I could acknowledge that I live with something ugly, and because of that ugliness, I am limited and I hurt every day. And guess what? When I let myself look at the word “disabled” as a negative label, I could accept myself. I could accept that other people will see me as lesser. I could accept everything that comes along with disability. Living with a disability is not normal, average, pleasant, neutral, or casual. When we soften the words for hard things, we are taking power away from words that need to keep their power. When you lessen the severity of the language, you are taking away the severity of the idea, which in turn lessens the validity of the difficulty and identity of the disabled person. It makes it soft. It makes disability seem less harmful, less painful, and less damaging
“Living with a disability” puts a degree of separation between the idea of a person and the idea of that person’s disability. That’s the whole point of the linguistic uprising here: always putting the person before the health issue. It’s supposed to sound more human. I get the intention. And if enough people with disabilities talk to me and tell me that they feel hurt by being called disabled, I sure as hell will change the language I use with others. I have not sampled enough of the population of people with disabilities to know what the majority of people prefer or how strongly those people feel about this language.
There is pain, limitation, prejudice, disrespect, and marginalization in the word “disabled,” which is exactly why I personally need to keep this label. It’s not normal or casual to be truly disabled. Making the language softer does not lessen the pain caused by disability; instead, it lessens the public validity of that pain. I think the people who are comforted by this language are largely healthy, and benefit from having an easier, publicly sanctioned “correct” way to call someone different.
I may be alone in this. And whoever you are, with whatever difficulties you live with, I am totally supportive of you giving yourself any label that you want or need. But I am disabled, and I earned that word. I’m not going to give that up.
by Emily K Harrington
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