Why I Use The Word Disability

Why I Use The Word Disability

Above: Disability symbols – white silhouettes of a person in a wheelchair, two hands signing, a blind person with a cane, and a brain inside a person’s head – sit against a multicolored background. Image comes from Penn Creative Strategy.   

You might be wondering why I champion acceptance for neurodiverse people while using the word “disability.” It’s associated with stigma, right? After all, the word includes the prefix “dys-“, which means “abnormal,” “difficult,” “impaired,” or “bad” (according to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary).  

The main reason I use the word “disability” is that it lets me talk about difficulties — things I can’t do or have to do differently — as neutrally as possible. 

Why "Disability"?

Above image by Amethyst Schaber (Neurowonderful) and sold on Redbubble.com. It lists the following words with red X’s next to them: “challenged,” “handicapped,” “handi-capable,” “differently abled,” “divers-abled,” and “special needs.” The word “disabled” follows, accompanied by a green check mark.

“Disability” is a relatively neutral word (compared to, say, “handicap”) because it is associated with the disability rights movement. It is also associated with laws against discrimination, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act.

People in the disability rights movement argue that the environment we live in puts some people at a disadvantage, creating disabilities. For example, not being able to walk is a disability when public space can’t be navigated by crutches or wheelchairs.

In other words, a disability doesn’t just happen because of the way our bodies work, it happens because we are not given equal opportunity to navigate the world in the bodies we have.

Similarly, autism or ADHD becomes a disability in a world that is set up for people with different minds than we have.

“Disability” acknowledges the difficulties we have without implying that we are defective or lesser.

It also allows us to align ourselves with the larger disability rights movement, which can be useful for those who want to change public policy.

Above: A tweet by Katie Thompson @ktkozar says, “Disabled is not a bad word. #DisabilityPrideMonth.”

Why Talk About Difficulties?

You’ve probably heard the slogan, “It’s not a disability, it’s a different ability.” Some people feel like that fits them, and if so, more power to them. However, others, including me, think it’s trivializing.

Consider what it means to receive a diagnosis of ADHD or ASD. The DSM doesn’t just require us to differ from the average person in how we pay attention, or process sensory information, or communicate. We have to differ in ways that make it harder to function in multiple areas of our lives.

As a group, people diagnosed with ADHD or ASD are undereducated, underemployed, have less access to medical care, are more likely to suffer abuse, and have higher rates of anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and suicide. We need to be able to talk about these problems in order to solve them. Saying those affected “just have a different ability” doesn’t cut it. If we just “had a different ability,” we wouldn’t be struggling so much in a world designed for people who work very differently.

What It Means To Accept Difficulties?

Most of all, I use the word “disability” to invite readers to value people with difficulties in their lives, who may be unable to do some things they would like to do.

Above image is part of a disability acceptance campaign from Cornell University. It shows the smiling face of a blond woman, Allison Milch, Class of 2018, CALS, Nutritional Science. A green image header asks, “WHAT DOES INCLUSION LOOK LIKE TO ME?” Allison’s answer: “When others acknowledge my disability.”

Above image is part of a disability acceptance campaign from Cornell University. It shows the smiling face of a blond woman, Allison Milch, Class of 2018, CALS, Nutritional Science. A green image header asks, “WHAT DOES INCLUSION LOOK LIKE TO ME?” Allison’s answer: “When others acknowledge my disability.”

Many people find it difficult to understand how to accept someone, and see them in a positive light, while also acknowledging their disability. Sometimes, people are tempted to minimize difficulties. They might say something like, “you don’t look autistic,” thinking it’s a compliment. What they may really be saying is, “I see you as a person. I don’t see you as my (stereotypical) image of what autism means.”

Or they might say, “don’t put yourself down! You can do anything you set your mind to!” They want to be encouraging. They mean something like, “I want you to be happy, achieve your goals, and not give up and feel hopeless.” They don’t realize they are making things worse by denying the reality of the person they are addressing.

It’s important to understand that struggling with accepting disabilities isn’t just for people who are ignorant or uncaring. Neurodivergent people, especially those diagnosed later in life, also have to learn how to accept ourselves without being in denial about our difficulties.

As Ruti Regan puts it, “part of living well as a person with a disability is accepting the body and the brain that you have, and working with it rather than against it.”

That can be a lengthy process. It can also require us to unlearn things we’ve been taught. The journey we’re asking society to take is the same one we’re making ourselves.

We need to be able to accept that we don’t have to be perfect to be worthy of love and belonging. No one can do anything and everything they set their mind to doing, and that’s okay. No one has perfect control over their minds or bodies, and that’s okay. People get sick and they age (a leading cause of disability for most of us), and that’s okay.

Here’s what it can sound like when we accept people, disabilities and all:

“Our bodies can’t do all of the things that most other people can do. That matters. …Thinking about the differences created by our disabilities allows us to think about how to live with them — and live well with them. These differences do not need to be cause for alarm — we’re just people, and we’re part of the world, just like everyone else.”

– Ruti Regan

You don’t have to overcome disability to do things that matter. You just have to find things to do that are actually possible, with the abilities you actually have. The things that you really can do are worth doing.

– Ruti Regan

It is Our Choice

Above image by Sarah Marks. It says “I am a woman, I am beautiul, I am Irish American, I am a college graduate, I am DISABLED #SaytheWord.”

Ultimately, each neurodivergent person has the right to decide how to describe themselves. Some people might say they have disabilities, others might not. It’s polite to respect their choice and call them what they wish to be called.

Many people will explain their choices if you ask. Just don’t correct them for using the word “disability” (or any other words). I guarantee you, they’ve thought about their choice, and they know what they’re doing.

Further Readings

Emily Morson

About The Author

Emily M. is a writer fascinated by the infinite variety of human minds. She grew up inexplicably different and was diagnosed as an adult with several forms of neurodivergence, including ADHD and an auditory discrimination disability. Feeling as if she were living life without a user's manual, she set out to create her own. In the process, she met other neurodivergent people on similar quests. She began working with them, advocating for inclusion, accessibility, and autism acceptance.  Seeking to understand how neurodiverse minds work, she became a cognitive neuroscience researcher.
Her favorite research topic: what do children learn from their intense, passionate interests? Wanting to help neurodivergent people more directly, she trained as a speech/language therapist. Ultimately, she turned to writing, combining research with personal experience to explain autism and ADHD and champion acceptance – because everyone is happier when they are seen and accepted for who they are. She envisions a world where neurodiverse people have equal opportunities for education, loving relationships, and meaningful work. 

She also blogs about autism and ADHD research at Mosaic of Minds. You can chat with her on Twitter: @mosaicofminds

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