Disabled! The best word we have

Disabled! Not a perfect word, but the best we have. There’s a dance around the language we use when it comes to disability, an uncomfortable one, and still so much confusion. 

I remember ‘handicapped’ in the 80s. Cripple mostly went out with the institutions they used to lock us up in. Invalid is awful, but less taboo (my rust-bucket of a wheelchair has a pun on invalid printed on the back – a major brand name apparently.) 

Disabled – the agreed-upon compromise. 

Of course the etymology of most of these words is cringe-making.

♿ In-valid – literally not valid (person? ticket? passport?)

♿ Disabled – no longer functioning (person? vehicle? instagram account?) 

In theory, ‘handicapped’ should be better – a sports handicap is a far more accurate analogy than a broken down lorry. 

But I loathe it. Words move on swiftly from their roots to absorb the ways they are used & the attitudes of the time. And handicapped just has too much baggage for me. 

I do care about language. If you call me any of the above except disabled I will flinch. 

But the more recent able-bodied pre-occupation with ‘kinder’ language can end up reaffirming the prejudice it’s trying to avoid : misleading euphemisms like ‘differently abled’, ‘special needs’… 

And the trend for ‘person first’ language, which still seems all the rage in the US – a charming reminder that unless you include the word PERSON when you talk about me, you’ll forget I actually am one.

It’s a weird, futile dance to watch. Disability is stigmatised. Helpful non-disabled people change the language – to ‘handicapped’ or ‘special needs’. And in a few years that new language is so contaminated by its association with us we’re back where we started. 

‘Special’ was an insult at school in the 90s. A decade earlier it was ‘Joey’. Why? Because a disabled man was once interviewed on BBC stalwart Blue Peter, and his name was Joey.

That is all it took for Joey – a man’s name for god’s sake – to become a playground insult. 

So. The problem is not the language. The problem is the stigma surrounding disability (yes, I’m sticking with that word). If we sound weary when yet another language change is suggested, this may be why.

Lucy Catchpole 

P.S PLEASE can we stop with the puns? Seriously. If I never hear wordplay around ‘ability’ again I shall die happy.

First posted on Instagram on the 4th of October 2020

[Image description: Lucy is in the garden with Viola (1) on her lap, they’re wearing dark brown & mustard. You can just about see her ancient metallic blue wheelchair. Lucy does not like metallic blue. The text reads – ‘Disabled! The best word we have’]

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