Progressive Language

We’ve all listened to people tripping over their tongues trying to find the most politically correct way of calling a disabled person a disabled person. You’ve probably met disabled people who have different preferred terms. I’m going to give you my view on it, which is based in the radical social model, and I’m going to attempt to win you over to my way of thinking 😉

Before I go any further I’m going to link to my post discussing the different ways disability is viewed and how I view it – What is Disability? This blog does not believe that impairment (structural or functional aspects of the body &/or mind that differ from the norm) is a synonym for disability. Disability is the systematic oppression and marginalisation faced by people with impairments: the two concepts are different, and understanding that is a key step towards understanding how we liberate ourselves.

“I Don’t like impairment, it sounds NEGATIVE”

I get it; like every medical term or word used to describe disabled people by non-disabled folk it gets imbued with negative connotations. For that reason I am of the firm belief that while we live in a disablist society any word that describes us, be it from a medical or social standpoint, will be turned into a slur by people who have been taught that our lives are less worthy. There is such a pressure on everyone to conform, to be normal, that words describing those of us that don’t conform are all used as slurs. For that reason I have no real interest in trying to change the word impairment for something else. No matter how neutral we intend for a new word to be today, disablism will warp it. Until disablism is dealt with I don’t think there is much point trying to find other words that are immune to these negative connotations. I don’t think it does anything to combat disablism, while I think acknowledging how the ways we are described are tainted with prejudice does, by bringing the practice into the light.

So, What do you call a Disabled Person?

To start with we are going to straight up discount any slurs, especially anything that is taking a medical term for an impairment (past or present) and applying it to all disabled people: spastics, retards etc… Don’t be a shit. Some of us use Crip/Cripple as a reclaimed term identity that meshes with our radical politics. Like the term Queer, many find it a slur even coming from fellow disabled people. Most of us will always find it a slur coming from non-disabled people.

Next, euphemistic terms which imply that to be called disabled is insulting, or that people are incapable because they have an impairment: special needs, handicapable, differently abled, disAbled, challenged etc… can all go in the trash. Then we start to get more controversial; if we are going to put those terms above that conflate structural or functional differences from the norm (impairments) we are also going to have to put the commonly used term ‘person with a disability’ in the trash too. I am well aware that there is a push for person-first language, but that language is generally designed to put the person before the impairment; a step to stop people reducing us to our medical labels. But as we don’t hold with disability being a catch all term for impairments, it’s not appropriate here.

What is left is the plain and simple term Disabled Person, or if you want to put more words in, a person who is disabled by the systemically oppressive hierarchical systems of power in our society.

I’m sorry to go over this again for those who are already aware, but for folks newer to this stuff it’s key. We must remember that the word “disabled” here is describing the oppression we face for having impairments, rather than the impairments themselves. It is placing the locus of disablement on the world that deems us abnormal and marginalises us, rather than blaming our individual bodies & minds for our treatment. It is not denying that I am in physical pain, it is challenging society to accept that people like me exist and that it needs to make sweeping changes so we are no longer marginalised.

What if I want to talk about someone’s impairments?

If you must, then person-first language that doesn’t have any value judgements attached is the general standard. It isn’t always the case though; some folks like those in the autism community prefer Autistic person, for example. The key thing is that you don’t fall into the trap of adding in the language of pity and suffering to your descriptions unless specifically asked to. I don’t suffer with EDS, I have it. It’s the way my genes and my body exist and placing a value judgement on it is pretty counter-revolutionary if you think about it. I plan to write a post about the problem with pity in the future, so we can talk more about it then.

What About People That Aren’t Disabled?

When it comes to this, as before, I bin all phrases that suggest the locus of disablement is based in our impairments. This includes phrases that centre ability, which perpetuate the unhelpful notion that it is our supposed lack of ability or our functional/structural difference, that is the reason we are disabled. They are popular because they prop up the status quo, and the regressive and damaging individual tragedy & bio-psycho-social models of disability that people have been raised with. It’s safe, but it’s harmful to the cause, and also inaccurate. I will be ‘able’ in one way or another until I’m dead. While I might not function like the current definition of normal functioning, I still function! I’m not unable. My body does me fine, even if from time to time I would like it to be more comfortable to inhabit. Suggesting we are incapable (not able) is not only a massive insult to disabled people, but a highly damaging way of looking at our lives.

So, phrases like abled, able-bodied, able-minded, and physically capable can get in the trash. Non-disabled is a way of framing it that doesn’t run counter to the message that we are are subject to disablism and they are not.

Is that why you say Disablism instead of Ableism?

Why yes it is, thanks for asking friend! You probably know where this is going now. Ableism puts the focus on ability, even if the speaker’s intention is to refer to shoddy stereotypes around ability – we have to face it, ability is what non-disabled people, disabled people marginalised from the conversation, and newly disabled people hear when they encounter the word ableism. Implying it’s about individual ability, is implying it’s about impairment (which is differences in structure/functioning to whatever normal is). It is using the language of all the regressive models of disability that work to keep us marginalised. It is against the interests of disabled people that want to be liberated. I would argue that it is in itself disablist, and a way of socially reproducing disablist stereotypes suggesting our impairments are to blame for the oppression we face. Because of all that, I talk about Disablism, and try to focus the attention back on the oppression we are trying to free ourselves from.


To put all of this in a couple of sentences;

Disabled people are people that experience marginalisation & oppression because of systemic disablism, while non-disabled people are those who do not. Disabled people are people with impairments.


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