Do It Myself Blog – Glenda Watson Hyatt

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What is in a word? The evolution of disability language continues

Filed under: Advocacy,Living with a disability — by at 3:36 pm on Wednesday, January 6, 2010

In a previous post, I shared one indicator of a society’s regard for the disabled lays in the terms used to label them. Words like cripple, invalid and handicap – used to dismiss, discard and devalue individuals seen as different – slowly disappeared as the social model of disability “gave way to the empowerment of people with disabilities through the development of a vigorous disabled identity and self-advocacy movement.”

For the first time in history, we were empowered to name the labels that define us. Although the discussion continues, sometimes at ad nauseam, the current acceptable terminology is people-first language, which puts the person before the disability. But, even here, there are issues with the word disability.

As Mama Terapeuta, a linguist and mother of a young daughter with cerebral palsy,  explains in her post Hablemos (En serio) de Discapacidad, loosely translated by Google Translate to "Let’s Talk (Seriously) Disability":

…disability is defined in opposition to performance and to some extent also health. It is classified by different degrees of ‘problems’ and to define explicitly that ‘trouble’ capabilities must be compared with what is normal for one. What can I say … To me this is a reason for not using the word disability.

With the term "disability", there needs to be an ability, a norm, in order for there to be a disability; disability is measured against an ability and is a measure of inferiority, of being less than.

Rather, Mama Terapeuta favours "functional diversity" – a phrase now commonly used in the Hispanic community. If I understand her correctly, functional diversity acknowledges the differences in abilities, the diverse ways of doing or functioning, while not implying inferiority or less than.

In my mind, “functional diversity” definitely has merit over “disability”. However, I wonder if using the term in the English-speaking community would lead to confusion rather than enlightenment, at least until the term catches on. I’m also left wondering if other cultures have equally thought-provoking terms.

What are your thoughts on this evolution of language?

If you enjoyed this post, consider buying me a chai tea latte. Thanks kindly.

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  1. Let’s talk about disability, seriously « Mamaterapeuta goes bilingual!


Comment by Mama Terapeuta

January 6, 2010 @ 5:39 pm

What an honour to be mentioned in your blog! 🙂

translators are tricky… I concluded in favor of ‘disability’ precisely due to the confussion that ‘funtional diversity’ implies. Yes, it is a positive term, but I think we don’t need to change the term ‘disability’, we need to say it with pride and change what society asociates wrongly with it.

Anyway, as you say, there has been a lot of discussion. It is a complicated subject! 🙂

Comment by Karen

January 6, 2010 @ 7:47 pm

Lately, and for a number of reasons, the words “differently-abled” has been haunting my thoughts. We all get by in this world, from cradle to grave. We all need help on a variety of ways and are thoroughly (and sometimes fiercly) independent in others.

So, to this effect and in my current frame of mind, differently-abled is more (entirely) inclusive to all — those of us that present better and those of us that don’t. (In my own quirky way and in my own opinion, I am in the second category, for the record.)

If differently-abled takes off as a phrase and reaches critical mass, I want full credit!! (providing it hasn’t been considered and disregarded long before my time!)

Comment by Adelaide Dupont

January 6, 2010 @ 9:32 pm

I like functional diversity because it shows:

1) that people can do things
2) that people do things at different times, and that can vary
3) and that we’re all different.

In the English-speaking world/Anglosphere, there was also functional impairment.

And one of my favourite blogs is called Life of the differently abled and subtitled: In my eyes: life with cerebral palsy. It’s a relatively recent blog.

Comment by Barbara

January 7, 2010 @ 2:10 pm

Not sure if my vote counts as I don’t have a label on my abilities.

For what it’s worth, I’m going to point you in the direction of starrlife:

We are not all equal in our abilities. But there are huge commonalities among all people. A very small portion of all people have specific inabilities – which for communication purposes really need a name or word. When that word becomes a slur – I am not sure how or if that can be controlled.

Comment by Jo Holzer

January 7, 2010 @ 7:30 pm

I hope I live to see the day when … among other things … public services, restaurants, etc., no longer use the term “handicap accessible”, but rather use “ADA accessible”or “legally accessible” or “universally accessible”.

What do you think?

Comment by Glenda

January 7, 2010 @ 7:44 pm

Or Jo, why not “Welcome Everyone!”?

Comment by Adelaide Dupont

January 7, 2010 @ 8:03 pm

We already talk about ‘universal design’. Especially on the web, and also in real life.

I like “Welcome everyone” too.

Whether “everyone” is “everyone”.

Donna Williams talked about “anybodies anywhere”.

Comment by Richard

January 8, 2010 @ 12:19 am

Obviously dis-abled is a negative term but trying to turn it around into a positive is unlikely to work, the term differently-abled has become a symbol of political correctness gone mad, along the lines of vertically-challenged or follically-challenged (I’m not saying I agree with that).
As you say, the term disabled requires a norm to measure against. Although that it difficult to define in some circumstances, in many cases it is just a statistical test. It is fair to say that the vast majority of people in the world are sighted, or have two legs, or don’t have cerebral palsy, so harsh as it sounds, those are norms.
I don’t think there are any easy answers to this but I do think that a two word term is far less likely to catch on than a one word term.
“functional diversity” to me has little or no meaning. Every human, animal and plant on the planet is functionally diverse. I can play piano which makes me functionally diverse from many people.
One area where the term disabled could be used much less is in accessibility. Rather than disabled-friendly just say accessible (or as one other commenter put it universally accessible if that helps). There is no need for a “disabled parking space”, if it needs a label just call it an “accessible parking space”

Comment by Bob Easton

January 8, 2010 @ 8:55 am

Before I retired from IBM’s Accessibility Center, I heard “differently abled” used widely in conferences where technologists gathered to share accessibility techniques.

“Universal accessibility” was also a heavily used phrase that sets a tough, but simply stated goal.

Personally, I prefer either of those to anything that says “ADA” or “legally…” Both of those sound like “We’re doing this because the law made us do it.” Tragically wrong!

Comment by Glenda

January 8, 2010 @ 11:52 am

Richard, I agree about the term “disabled parking space”. To me, that means the parking space is disabled, which, in some cases, is true!

Comment by Glenda

January 8, 2010 @ 11:55 am

Bob, I hear ya on “legally accessible”. That begs the question: what is “illegally accessible”? Or, “illegally blind”?

Comment by Adelaide Dupont

January 8, 2010 @ 4:39 pm

In some countries “illegally blind” is implied by not being on a registered list.

Some countries have a “registered blind” list, and it is probably going to be more likely for more disabilities (and more services) in the time of genetic testing.

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