by Alice Thomson

The language we use can offer us a glimpse into our core values. Words can be loaded with deeper meaning that demonstrate the true beliefs of a society or individual. This is why, when we use the word “disabled”, it’s worth noting that we tend to veer towards negative language. When looking up synonyms of the word disabled, I was surprised by the loaded and emotive language I found – words like weakened, incapable, damaged and powerless.

We all think of some form of stereotype when we talk about disability, and usually it’s a negative one. I’ve seen friends physically recoil from me when they see me in a wheelchair for the first time. My disability is often invisible, so this realisation that I am actually disabled can make some people I know feel extremely uncomfortable. Sometimes I will hide my chronic pain, dislocations or fatigue because I know it will distress others.

In Britain, two thirds of the population feel uncomfortable speaking with a disabled person. Over a third of the population believe a disabled person is less productive than a nondisabled person. A quarter of disabled people have experienced attitudes where people expect less of them because of their disability. These attitudes affect every aspect of a disabled person’s life. We might think that a disabled person always needs help, cannot live a “normal” life, or are weaker in some way – but the truth is that disabled people are just the same as everyone else. We all have challenges in our lives. We all struggle, we all need support, love and friendship. We all have days where we feel overwhelmed by our lives or our pasts. We all have days where we feel great. A disabled person is no different from a non-disabled person in so many ways. It is just that the things that cause us to feel these ways can be different at time.

It is through lack of thought or by ignorance that a disabled person has been denied access to this space.

Even the initial label of disabled person is important to examine. Why not a “person with disabilities”? What’s wrong with using this label instead? Well, if we describe a person as having a disability then we are suggesting that the person’s disability is a problem they “have”, and therefore that their disability is not part of their identity. Their identity is one thing, and their disability is a problem that is tagged onto it. It highlights that there is something wrong with the way that person’s body works. This definition of disability is known as the Medical model. The implication of this definition is that we assume there is a right or correct way for a body to work, and that if someone’s body does not fulfil this criteria then their body is wrong or inferior.  This model reinforces the negative idea that disabled people are weak or lacking in some way. However, if we use the term disabled person then we suggest we are a person firstly and that our disability is a secondary aspect of our identity. In saying “disabled person” we are highlighting not a failure in the person but the fact that they are being made disabled by their social environment. This definition is called the Social Model, and is a preferred way of viewing disability by disabled people. The disability of a person is in the restriction or loss of opportunity to take part in community due to physical or social barriers. This viewpoint focusses on disability done by society to a person with impairments, not that the fault lies with the impaired person.

“…the disadvantage or restriction of activity caused by a contemporary social organisation which takes little or no account of people who have physical impairments and thus excludes them from the mainstream of social activities” (UPIAS 1976:14).  

An example of this would be a public space like a park, built with the purpose of members of the community to use. But, in this example, it was built with no benches to sit on or with lots of stairs to access the areas. A disabled person will struggle to access this space, despite the fact it is a community space and in this respect all have a right to access. It is through lack of thought or by ignorance that a disabled person has been denied access to this space.

Although I say disability is a secondary aspect of a person’s identity, it is still part of their personality. Our sense of self is create through our experiences and interpretations of our world. A disabled person experiences the world differently from a nondisabled person and that, therefore, will be an inherent part of their identity. That doesn’t mean this makes up their entire identity or that they have no other interests or experiences outside their disability. If we think otherwise it can make it difficult for a nondisabled person to relate to a disabled person. I often wear finger splints that are made of silver and look like rings. I’ve had many people admire and comment on them over the years, and although I bought them for a purpose, I enjoy their aesthetic look. It’s minor, but it’s a bonding moment; a shared interest. As soon as I mention what their purpose is the person apologises, profusely, for mentioning my splints. Every time. It’s as if they are embarrassed to have highlighted something that makes me different. And not different in a good way. It seems that as soon as my disability becomes visible I become less relatable.

We are just as weak or as strong as anyone else, we are only different.

Like any other person, a disabled person has much to give to their community. And the wonderful thing is that a disabled person often experiences life in a different way, and so what they have to give comes from a different perspective. We are not weakened because of our disability. We are just as weak or as strong as anyone else, we are only different. We have learned to adapt in ways nondisabled people would never realise could be necessary. We can learn a lot from each other, and this includes disabled people.

Featured image credit: Cramoanier

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