Part 5: Disability Corner: NamingDisability Corner: Naming
As far as aspects of civil rights go, disability rights as advocated for by disabled people is relatively new. I really dont want to dig too deep into the history of the disability rights movement and its relationships to similar movements because that shit is convoluted and depressing, but right now were still hammering down exactly what we want to be called, where, when, and why. As you might expect, there are dozens of different positions and subpositions with advocates that all hate each other, but in my experience you can boil it down to three ways people talk about us: differently abled people, disabled people, and people with disabilities.
Differently abled (and its cousin, diverse abilities) is particularly popular among people who really want to help. Their arguments sound pretty good on paper: the word disabled specifically defines a person by the way in which they fail to measure up to societal standards. So, by changing the term to something that emphasizes how much value they have and how capable they can be, you turn it into something supportive and complementary, right? Not so much, given how it downplays the very real problems many of us have. Like, my condition and life experience give me capabilities very few other people can match, but I also cannot type for any period of time without experiencing extreme pain. Pain preventing typing isnt a different ability, you know? It smacks of selling our value to society at large instead of finding ways to make it work with us. Plus, it doesnt help that the driving force comes from groups organized by abled people for disabled people without our knowledge or input. Ill get into how big a bugbear that kind of paternalism is in another post, but the disabled community has a long, long history of people speaking straight over it on the assumption that we cant speak for ourselves. Using the whole differently abled thing doesnt make someone a bad person or anything hell, a few of us actually like and use the term and there are tons of people who use it because they dont know enough of the context to figure out whats really going on and can be brought around relatively easily. But its something the activist community as a whole does not approve of.
The other two terms, which go by the names person-first and identity-first language, see a lot more debate. Person-first language describes the formation [name or basic description]-[conjoining phrase]-[condition]: person with disabilities, women with deafness, people who have autism. The argument goes that this phraseology separates a person, forcing the speaker and listener to acknowledge their personhood first before attaching any qualifiers. Mainstream disability activism really takes issue with the qualifier part of that sentence see, the thing about our disabilities is that theyre a part of us. We cant extract them from our lives and look at them separately because they shape our lives, for better or for worse. The very concept grates on those of us who consider them a part of our identities, since it severs part of our identity, identifies it as lesser, and quarantines it at the end of the phrase. Can you imagine if they did that for other groups? My personal favorite take is person with womanhood. Plus, one of the biggest sponsors of person-first language is Autism Speaks, and considering that organization historically promoted anti-vaxx, spends ~20 times as much money on lobbying for autism as they spend on supporting those who have it, lobbies against groups run by said people when theyre not telling them to their faces they shouldnt breed, and is partly funded by neo-Nazis, so
Its primary competitor is identity-first language: [condition]-[name or basic description], like blind person or autistic women. In part, the argument goes that person-first language may sound better, theres little evidence it does anything to shift opinions . What it does do is make talking about disability a little less painful for family members and professionals, many of whom either view disability as something purely negative, consciously or unconsciously think theyre better equipped to talk about our lives than we are, or both. It sidelines us. Identity-first language, on the other hand, brings our disability front and center. Instead of segregating it from the rest of us, identity-first language fits our identity back into standard English word order like any other adjective. Being disabled is not inherently positive, but its not inherently negative, either; it's a part of us, something inherent with good and bad aspects, and passing moral judgment on it makes no more sense than passing moral judgment on any other fundamental aspect of a person. It lets us take it as it is, without hiding it to protect the sensibilities of others.
And I took that stance without reservation until I started working with people in their 40s and 50s and 60s who identified as people with disabilities. We think of person-first language as old and outdated today, but the way they tell it, it actually only dates back a few decades, not that long past when the concept of identity-first language was being formulated in the 90s. Before then, the question of where to put the adjective in the phrase was irrelevant because there was no phrase, just adjectival nouns: handicapped, disabled, words considered insults and slurs today. Person with was a roadblock designed to interrupt thought patterns, intended less to separate people from their disabilities and more to point out that people are not defined by their disabilities alone, at a time when that was the working assumption. To them, identity-first language smacks uncomfortably of the brutality they had to push back against and again prioritizes those all-encompassing definitions they tried to break free of.
Of course, the other sides arguments still hold true, so . We settled on identity-first language in official communications while acknowledging person-first language as legitimate because of that. And not only do plenty of people identify as people with disabilities, but some identify as having diverse abilities or any number of other alternatives, and Im not inclined to tell them that theyre wrong. Plus, a lot of this debate focuses on neurodiversity (especially autism) and ignores other fields of disability where this debate is nonexistent. There is no clear answer Im driving towards here. But the Disability Corner exist to show you a little about whats happening behind the scenes in disability advocacy, and I hope this did exactly that!
Let me know if theres anything youre interested in and would like me to cover; unless something else comes up, I can look into it and get back to you with my discoveries next time.