Terminology reveals co-opting of disability activism

Never in my life have I met a differently abled person. Despite running a disability rights group and attending a training session on disability rights activism in Washington D.C. and publicly speaking about disability for years, I have never met a person who has willingly and proudly referred to themselves as “differently abled.” And although I am certain that there are some people who fully and wholeheartedly embrace this term, I have never met them nor do I have any particular desire to.

I do, of course, believe that anyone has the right to identify using whatever term they feel best describes them personally. Although I may disagree philosophically with someone who chooses to refer to themselves as differently abled—for reasons I will soon explain—they have every right to do so without being ostracized. They are not the subject of my ire.

Instead, my ire is directed at those non-disabled people who either impose the word on others without proper regard for disabled people or, even worse, outright attack disabled people who choose to refer to themselves as disabled. If the real goal of such tone policing is to fight ableism and empower disabled voices, they are doing quite a poor job. In fact, it is having the opposite effect in practice: It is strengthening ableism and empowering non-disabled voices over those of people most affected by these conversations.

For disabled people, the word “disability” connects us to a broader movement and its history. It connects us to our own civil and human rights movements and a brave community of people fighting for dignity and human rights across the world. It truly is a grand unifier that gives us a sense of community that many among us have lacked for the entirety of our lives, and it frames our activism within a broader historical context.

The word “disability” is written into the law and it protects my rights. That is precisely the point of using it.

The word “disability” is what protects us from being discriminated against even more than we already are, from going homeless, from starving, from being refused an education. The Americans with Disabilities Act was not won in 1990 by people who insisted that maybe we should be calling ourselves differently abled.

By stigmatizing the word “disability,” non-disabled people deprive us of that sense of community and that larger historical context, both of which are fundamental components of many of our identities as well as the fight for equity and justice. Rather than signaling understanding and tolerance, it serves as a means by which non-disabled people isolate disabled people in order to jettison our advocacy so that they can selfishly use it to call attention to themselves. The term “differently abled” isn’t about better serving the needs of the disabled community, but rather is an attempt to make non-disabled people feel more comfortable at the expense of many disabled people.

“The word disability is what protects us from being discriminated against, from going homeless, from starving, from being refused an education.”

And this nonsense distracts from more important issues, no less. I, for one, am tired of non-disabled activists who take it upon themselves to police others on issues that simply do not concern them, all the while ignoring the very real atrocities being committed against disabled people every day. Having devoted myself to the cause for some time now, I can always tell if a person engaging in disability rights activism is actually disabled, because the activists who are disabled are more often focused on passing actual policy proposals or addressing significant human rights violations that demand attention. Meanwhile, the non-disabled activists are generally satisfied with throw-away Facebook posts about how “special” differently abled people are—posts that all too

often give the impression that their authors believe the precise language with which we discuss issues pertinent to disability rights is of unrivaled importance.

This is not to mention, of course, that these people miss the point entirely because they subscribe to a long outdated idea of disability. The logic behind “differently abled” is that the word “disabled” implies that I am unable to do things, and that the word “differently abled” acknowledges that I can do things, just different things from other people.

But I am disabled. I am disabled because I live in a society that was not built for disabled people, and thus I am disabled by society. A person who is unable to walk is disabled because they are living in a society in which everyone around them can walk and thus has not valued crafting a society for those who cannot. If no person could walk, being unable to do so would not be considered a disability because the world would be built for people like them—why wouldn’t we be building ramps if everyone on earth needed to use one?

The term “differently abled,” however, enforces the idea that disability is bad and shameful, and that it should be covered up in some way. It therefore runs afoul of the terms in which many disability rights activists view and refer to ourselves. This term understands disability as meaning that we cannot do certain things, and that obviously we should be embarrassed that we cannot do things other people can do. It precludes disability pride or the existence of a larger disabled community.

Furthermore, it’s dangerous. If we’re differently abled and not disabled, why do we need help or services? The term “differently abled” dismisses the idea that being disabled can be a negative experience in any way. Being disabled is not always pleasant. I do not always like being in a world that wasn’t built for me, and that’s okay. It’s okay to be unhappy sometimes. It’s okay to acknowledge that there are unique challenges that disabled people face that others don’t.

But I wouldn’t want to change who I am. I like being me. I couldn’t imagine not being me. I don’t want to be changed, I don’t want to be saved, I don’t want to be the same as every other person.

I want to be treated with the understanding that I’m different, but not condescended to like a child. And the non-disabled activists who regularly use and enforce the use of terms like “differently abled” are treating us like children. We can’t handle deciding what we get to be called. We can’t handle deciding that we don’t think disability is a bad thing. We can’t even handle being in charge of our own advocacy. Non-disabled people have to do it for us.

“The term ‘differently abled,’ however, enforces the idea that disability is bad and shameful, and that it should be covered up in some way.”

There is no other social justice movement on Earth in which this would be acceptable. Imagine, for example, that heterosexual people started insisting that non-heterosexual people all refer to themselves as “differently oriented” and then attacked non-heterosexual people who refer to themselves as anything else. Now imagine that this was such a popular trend that it became accepted, politically correct language.

That is not significantly different than what is being done here. A social movement is being co-opted by outsiders who have no business dictating its language, and then the left is largely embracing this as a decent, acceptable practice.

Enough is enough. It is time for disabled people to be allowed control of our own social movement. This is about more than just a word; it is about an idea. It is about using the word that protects us. It is about disabled people being allowed agency within our own social movement. It is about disabled people deciding for ourselves what terms work best for us. Not least of all, it is about non-disabled people being good allies and listening for once.

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