DISCLAIMER: Identifying language is a personal choice. This is mine, but I’m not anyone’s ~token disabled person~ so make sure you check in with other folks to see what language and labels they prefer 🙂
Now, let’s get real.
Every time I hear the, “but people with disabilities are people first!!! Focus on the person, not the *whispers* disability!!!” speech, I want to vomit.
Sorry, y’all, but it’s true.
It just makes me feel gross, you know? Like drinking spoiled milk, or getting kicked hard in the stomach.
I know that most of the time, the people who use person-first language have good intentions. They often feel like they’re doing us a favour by reminding other folks that we’re not strange alien beings from another planet – no, we’re people, damn it!
But here’s the thing!
You shouldn’t need to be reminded of my humanity. You shouldn’t need someone to point out to you that I’m a person and not a list of diagnoses or something. In fact, the only reason you would need that reminder would be if you didn’t already know, and if you don’t KNOW (and/or believe) that disabled people are, in fact, people… well, then we have a much bigger problem on our hands (and, newsflash: it’s probably gonna lead back to a little something called eugenics, just saying).
Unfortunately, it would appear as though a lot of folks do seem to need a reminder about our humanity as disabled people… either that, or they just think ‘disabled’ is a dirty word (but more on that later). So, they continue to use person-first language in order to somehow preserve our humanity without ‘reducing’ us to just our disabilities – as if calling us disabled somehow erases every other aspect of our identity (yikes).
It’s fascinating, really, considering nobody seems to worry one bit about whether or not my identity is in tact when I refer to myself as a white person, or as Canadian… Notice how the language works there, by the way? White person not, person who is white, and Canadian rather than a person from Canada… but hey, maybe that’s just a coincidence, right?
Except it’s not. The difference is that being white, and being Canadian? Yeah, those are both considered to be good things! Being disabled, on the other hand… not so much. People still – whether they want to admit it or not – look at disabled folks as less than, so actually calling someone disabled? Well, that’s an insult! It’s stripping them of their humanity, because disabled folks aren’t human!
See what I mean?
It’s so easy to just not think about the implications of person-first language, because on its face, it would appear as if it’s a great thing. After all, disabled people SHOULD be viewed as people, and we SHOULD be treated with dignity and respect… right?
The problem, though, is that doing that shouldn’t have to involve minimizing and, in some cases erasing our disabilities – because guess what: For a lot of us, including me, disability is an integral part of who we are, and it just can’t be separated from us.
So, let me just ask y’all a question: Why is it that people are so adamant that ‘disabled’ is a dirty word?
Here’s my answer:
I believe that a lot of people – too many people, actually – have a fundamental misunderstanding of what I mean when I call myself disabled. I know that may seem strange, but stay with me for a second.
Traditionally, society has adhered to what’s known as the medical model of disability. Now, the medical model basically says that disability is caused by a physical (or mental) condition that is an intrinsic part of the individual. What does this mean, you ask? It means that the medical model thinks whatever the medical diagnosis is, is what causes a person to be disabled. In my case, for example, the medical model would say that Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome is what disables me.
I’m here to call bullshit on the medical model.
Instead, I think we should talk about the social model of disability – because that right there? That’s my shit.
Unlike the medical model, the social model of disability believes that it is not the impairment that causes disability, but rather, it’s society, and the way it’s structured. Basically, this means that according to the social model, I do not have a disability. It’s not something I went and picked up at the store that I now possess, and it’s not something I was born with, either.
No, quite to the contrary, the social model would argue that I am disabled… by a society that is not built for me, since I don’t fit into the nice, shiny little boxes that are ‘able-bodiedness’ and ‘saneness’. I’m disabled by society’s unwillingness to adapt and accommodate anyone who isn’t considered physically and mentally ‘fit’ and ‘acceptable’ (ew, gag me).
So, basically, it works like this:
I do not have a disability… I have Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome.
Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome does not disable me, society does.
See the difference?
Don’t get me wrong- I know there are probably some folks out there who will still prefer to be called people with disabilities… and that’s fine! I’m not here to police the language used by others in my community, because it’s not my place to do so. I’m just here to shed some light on the implications of non-disabled folks using person-first language, and to show y’all why it is not, and will never be the right fit for me.
Either way, though… regardless of how you may identify, let’s all agree on this: There are plenty of dirty words out there, but ‘disabled’?
It’s just not one of them.
– Stephanie, ECC