Watch your Mouth, Part 2: Disability–The Truth, or Just one Big Diss?

Hello, readers, and welcome to my first two-parter post. As indicated, this is about another word used in reference to persons with disabilities, why we use it, if we should, and, if we must, how to give the word some dignity. This post is also trickier than yesterday’s, because the word I’m writing about is at the core of this blog: the word “disability” itself.

I know what you might be saying to yourself, because I said it, too. Have we become so afraid of words–such rabid hair-splitters about what is and is not offensive–that we must question the word “disability?” Well, if you guys know me at all, you know I think hair-splitting and political correctness is for the birds. So yes, I raised that question with myself before beginning this post, especially since–and I’ll say it right up front–I don’t know what other word we’d use if we tried to replace “disability.” But maybe that’s a good thing, because if we rethought our use of “disability,” we’d be closer to an answer for that question.

Legend says when inventing the lightbulb, Thomas Edison failed one hundred times before succeeding with his first incandescent lamp. Someone asked him, “So you have basically failed?” And he said–oh, I love this–“No. Now I know 100 ways that don’t work.” Keep that in mind, and now think about the words past generations have used to describe disability, and moreover, persons with disabilities.

  • Crippled
  • Retarded
  • Mongoloid
  • Handicapped
  • Physically/verbally ___ly challenged
  • Impaired
  • And even, in some cases, words like “unfortunates,” “unclean,” “tragic”–even “evil”

Yes, those words still exist. And some people use them. But as the disability civil rights movement grows (and it says a lot that we needed a movement), we’ve learned those words aren’t the best. In other words, we know at least nine words–ways of signifying disability–that DON’T WORK. We have not failed. But we do have to keep trying.

But why, you might ask, do we have to keep trying? Isn’t it enough that we say “persons with disabilities?” I will concede, yes, that is a huge step in the right direction. The other “tags” society has used throughout the centuries have actually focused on the disabilities involved without ever acknowledging a person ever existed outside of it. So simply acknowledging that fact is a major positive. And as I said before, I’m not sure yet what the replacement for “disability” should, or even would, be. All I am trying to express here is, I’m currently asking myself if “disability” truly expresses what we should say about this very capable group of people, who all have their own strengths, even if they are not “typical” strengths.

Let’s do a word study. 😉 If we break the word “disability” down, we have the root word “ability,” which is the operative word. Ability is what we should all be focused on where anyone, disability or not, is concerned first. Yes, we can talk about and deal with weaknesses, impairments, and other issues. But in order to afford anyone, disability or not, any kind of personal dignity, we should focus on strengths and positives first (unless of course, we’re talking about, say, Hitler or something). But in front of this positive root word, we have the stem “dis.”

“Dis” is a stem that is often used to mean “away.” As in: dismiss, disengage, discombobulate, discord, disrespect. As in, to send away respect. To take away engagement.

So technically, “disability” means “to take away ability” or “ability–away.” And isn’t that what we often do to people with disabilities? We focus so much on their weaknesses, or what they need help with, that we forget about ABILITY? Even if we have the best of intentions and the kindest hearts, can’t that happen to the best of us? Of course.

So once more, this is a problem I do not have a solution for. Yet, I have to wonder: in trying to communicate what our loved ones need, and communicate who our loved ones are, do we need to use a term that basically takes ability away?

We didn’t always have some of the words we do now. Someone had to make them up. So…does anyone out there want to brainstorm some new words?


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