“Person with a disability.”
The language of disability has evolved, as has the language attached to other minorities. After all, most of us know better than to use the terms “Negro,” “spic,” or ____ (fill in your own blank) anymore. But the problem with disability language, as Mary Johnson points out in her book Make Them Go Away, is that it’s considered unnecessarily politically correct. As Johnson explains, most people who don’t understand disability rights–or are against them entirely–would say, “No one is against the handicapped,” but that it’s silly to call them “persons with disabilities” because the terms “handicapped” or “disabled person” don’t truly infringe on their civil rights. What civil rights do they have, anyway, naysayers ask. It’s not as if they’re being put down for something innate, like skin color or sex. Their problem is individualized and could possibly be cured. Their problem is that their bodies don’t work correctly, and to acknowledge that is to move out of denial.
I will admit, a few months ago, I had no problem calling myself a “disabled person,” for a modified version of the given reason. I’d been choked with political correctness on all fronts, especially academia. “Holiday tree” replaced “Christmas tree.” Cartoons with the great intentions of showing all ethnicities and lifestyles turned into multiculturalism run amok because every episode somehow revolved around race, discrimination, differences, and so forth. The nuclear family took a backseat to Heather Has Two Mommies and fictitious families so rampant with divorce drama that the book’s protagonist couldn’t describe her family without listing about 20 different step-relationships, further complicated by the web of who’s-not-speaking-to-whom. I had had it with political correctness, even and especially where disability was concerned. If you had a disability, you were a disabled person, and to attach a long P.C. phrase to it was to embrace the shame and apologetic tone anti-disability society projects on us.
So this October, when I saw a display on people-first language in honor of Disability Awareness Month (more on that in a future post), I was tempted to walk away. You know–“More P.C., greeeeeeaaaaat.” But then I saw the website where the Office of Disability Services got its info–disabilityisnatural.com. The posterboard display was stuffed with facts and research that were completely foreign to me. Concepts like:
- They’re not “special needs.” They are needs, and everybody has the same ones, disability or not.
- “Special education” may be cheating the child with a disability out of a real education.
- Conventional therapy may hinder or hurt more than help.
- And: People with disabilities are people first, and have more in common with “regular” people than anyone thinks.
You see, “person with a disability” is not more political correctness. The term is actually the fairest one I know of that we can use. It acknowledges disability, but unlike naysayers claim, does not make the person with that disability seem “not able” or “incapable.” The truth is, the “person” negates–or at least minimizes–the disability. As in, “I’m a person who happens to have a disability, but I’m a person first.” “Disabled person,” on the other hand, puts the C.P., the spina bifida, the blindness, the Down’s Syndrome, the whatever–first. And that, my friends, is what will make that person feel incapable, “not able,” “less than.”
Because as someone once said, “Living with a disability is not courageous, or a brave struggle. It is a very ingenious way to live.”