Differently abled? With a disability? Disabled?

30 Aug

In yesterday’s post, I used the phrase “disabled people,” and I wanted to take a moment to talk about that choice of language.

You hear lots of ways to name this identity group: “differently abled” and “with a disability” are pretty popular now. And I would argue that they are neither helpful nor accurate. Let’s break it down…

“Differently abled” is misleadingly all-inclusive. By definition, people who run ultra marathons are “differently abled” than people who cannot walk. Yet, in practice, I see this term applied specifically to the latter, not the former, group. I have yet to encounter a program for “differently physically abled” people that targets or even includes those whom we see as fully bodily abled. The same is true for “differently learning abled” programs: while students labeled “gifted” are certainly “different” from those who aren’t, “learning difference” is a phrase more commonly used to describe students who are struggling in school, than those excelling in it. So while it’s true that any one person is different from another, “differently abled” actually seems to refer exclusively to a subset of the kinds of differences that exist among people: “differently abled” is polite, indirect (and therefore inaccurate) code for people whom we see as disadvantaged.

But if we continue to use “different” as a way to say “disadvantaged,” we’ll soon slip further down the slope: as nice people, tacitly trained to believe that it’s rude to point out someone’s “difference,” we will soon have to avoid the d-word at all. What then? “Otherly abled”? This would actually be a useful and mindful phrase, in that being in a wheelchair doesn’t mean you’re disabled or unable. You most certainly have other abilities, including but not limited to those that you use for locomotion. That said, if we use “otherly abled” as new, still avoidant code when we really mean people whose abilities we think are deficient, then we’re still just breaking language, avoiding issues and not connecting with people.

On that note, let’s talk about the phrase “with a disability.” To me, this suggests both grammatically and connotatively that the disability is something inherent to the individual. As if a person with a disability has that disability because they are that disability. I would beg to differ.

Disability and ability are really a transaction between an individual and their environment. If I am disabled, it’s because my abilities don’t match the abilities my situation requires. We can see this truth in the realm of learning disabilities: the majority of students “with learning disabilities” can learn just fine with adjustments in their learning environments, including the dominant pedagogy. This is commonly referred to as “accommodating students with learning disabilities.” To which I would simply say: some students are already being accommodated by the environment (i.e. the ones who are thriving). The accommodation for them is just built into the classroom. So when we accommodate the students whose learning is disabled in that same classroom, we’re not giving the latter group special treatment. We’re just broadening access to learning. We’re diversifying the group of students who are enabled to learn.

And that brings me back to “physically disabled people” or “learning disabled students.” The reason I prefer this language is that it invites questions: disabled how? And by what? These questions remind me that disability is always situational, and its etiology is therefore both environmental and individual.

Of course, the same habits of mind and culture can prevail with this or any other language we use: we can default unthinkingly to characterizing people based on a disability that is only one situationally activated part of who they are. And that’s on us to fix, not language. We can’t just keep running away from our own habits of mind and try to hide behind language that’s safe (and probably then not very descriptive in a true and helpful way). We need to reset the tacit assumptions behind our words and our intention in using them.

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