Call me a disabled person...
I’ve been called many things in my life when people wanted to refer to the fact I had a physical impairment, way long before I acquired my visual impairment.
I admit that I was ready to accept being called a “person with special needs” and preferred to refer to myself, if the situation required that I mention my impairment, as “physically challenged”. I found a little problem with having to talk of my physical impairment as a boy and I tried my best to pass off as ‘physically normal’.
Back then, I would not have imagined that I would come to describe myself as a 'disabled person' - a phrase I detested with a vengeance when I was much younger. But, yes, if you asked me today, I would tell you that I prefer to refer to myself as a “disabled person”. However, more on that later…
Misleading Euphemistic Phrases…
Of course, disabled people have been described in very derogatory terms ranging from “cripple”, “retarded”, “deformed”, “defective”, “wheelchair-bound”, “deaf and dumb”, “mental” and so on and on. These labels may be given to disabled people in general or to particular impairment groups. However, they all invalidate our worth as human beings which reminds me that “invalid” is also the term that captures what is meant when they call us by all those names.
But why haven’t I included the term “disabled person”? Yes, I use it today but it's not a term that some disabled people would want to identify with. The main reason is that both the general public and a number of disabled people misinterpret the term as meaning “lacking in ability”. And, yes, that interpretation is rather similar to calling us “invalids”. Yet, as I will explain later, this is not what disabled people who formed the first movements composed primarily by referring themselves as “disabled people”. But, be a bit more patient for first I must reveal my top three terms that I dislike being referred to today since choosing to refer to myself as a 'disabled person'..
Differently-Abled. Who me?
I’ve heard the media using this to describe disabled people and even some disabled people themselves to describe themselves. I suspect it’s a term that is meant to replace the term “disabled”. Yet, on close examination is meaningless and is really a term that can be applied to the whole of humankind.
For aren’t we all, disabled and non-disabledpeople, ‘differently abled’ in our own ways? For not everyone knows how to write a book, how to fix a car or how to sing, for example. There is no such thing as a “normal ability”.
In fact, whether one has a skill or ability depends on many factors, including the person’s own likes and dislikes, social and family background and life circumstances, including whether one has an impairment..
To claim one is differently abled is like saying I’m a human being or stating the obvious. Ability is most often a matter of opportunity and everyone in this world is, in fact, 'differently abled' if you think about it and as disabled people, I don't think we have any special privilege to make use of a phrase that really isn't saying that much but, in my view, actually emphasising our differences as if they were very different than that of others.
Explain to me exactly what are my ‘special needs’?
This takes me to the second term, I confess, I did accept as young boy. Today, I realise how this term is oppressive because it appears to imply that we are, in some way, an alien people. Not in the sense employed in immigration law but in the sense that we're somewhat 'out of this world' and that we are somewhat an alien species.
But, when I ask people, what exactly are my special needs? They often mention two things. First, my wheelchair. Second, is the lift. Delighted that they believe they answered correctly, their faces beam expecting me to accept their brilliant answers. But, I point out that they're wrong because the wheelchair and the lift are means to fulfil my needs, they aren’t needs themselves.
Indeed, my needs are exactly the same as any other person. I need to move around or to be mobile, so I use a wheelchair to realise that need. I need vertical access to buildings higher than one floor.
And, yes, if tomorrow new technology was invented that made either the wheelchair or lift redundant, I would use it if it was better than the existent technology. Butt no, I’m not bound by my wheelchair! In fact, it permits me to go places I would have never been able to go… It gives me the independence and mobility other people have!
I’m challenged… You must be joking!
Another phrase that, at first, appears to be nice and politically correct is when disabled people, depending on their impairments become ‘challenged’. I was physically challenged and then became visually challenged. So, now I’m both visually and physically challenged. Am I brave or not? Of course, I’m being sarcastic here. Yet, I was more ready to accept being regarded as ‘challenged’ rather than ‘disabled’.
However, the problem with describing myself as 'visually and physically challenged' is that, this follows a medical model view of disability by implying that the problems I have in my daily life are simply due to my impairments.
In this sense, my impairments are the ‘challenges’ I must face on my own. It can give the impression that disabled people are exceptional people if they are able to overcome their ‘challenges’. Yet, those who may need extra support or do not 'succeed' in the eyes of society are often cast of as 'lazy' or 'pathetic' and, worse still, told off for not being to achieve like those disabled people who are deemed to have 'overcome their challenge'.
Yet, if I accept that, say, I’m physically challenged, I am accepting the fact that my impairment is a personal problem and it’s up to me alone to get over such a ‘challenge’. It’s assumed that it’s my destiny, fate I must deal with and a burden I must bear. And yet, is impairment really the great ‘challenge’ I have to face alone? Is it my and only my problem?
Yes, I am a disabled person…
The problems with all the misguided attempts at political correctness is that they start off by assuming that the problems we face as people with impairments are simply related to the fact we have an impairment.
'Differently-abled' attempts to present us in apparently more tolerable terms or close to 'normal' but the label 'differently-abled', when examined, is without real meaning. The second term, 'special needs' attempts to present us using flattering language like ‘special’ when it calling us 'special'
is actually reinforcing the ideas that we are not fully human or that we are very different than other people to the extent that our needs are 'special'. The last term which describes us as somewhat 'challenged'' is defining us using the same idea of a medical model view of disability which roots all our problems in the fact we have impairments using nicer language.
Indeed, all the three euphemisms appear to be a reaction to the term ;disabled person' as this term is assumed to be negative and oppressive. However, I choose to define myself as a 'disabled person' because I came to understand what it really meant and that, in fact, it's a positive and liberating self-definition.
Why am I a disabled person?
If I thought that calling myself a disabled person is negative and belittling, I would not use it. If I thought that it implied I lacked in ability, I would not use it.
Yet, when disabled people in the early 1960s came together for the first time in history, they redefined the meaning of disability. Indeed, while they recognised impairment as lack of functional ability, they observed that it was not the main barrier that was preventing them from being included and to be active participants in their society.
The early movements of disabled people rooted the problems faced by people with impairments in the way society itself was structured and organised in such a way as to take “little or no account people with impairments’.
Nothing about us without us!
When I discovered the social model of disability, I realised that the problem wasn’t only my personal problem any more but something largely imposed on me by society on top of my impairments.
Thus, by affirming I am disabled is a political statement by which I am affirming that impairment has little or no part to play when I am excluded but, rather, it’s the structural and attitudinal barriers that prevent me from benefitting from my human rights.
That is why, readers, please call me a disabled person.
And, no, I’m not one of ‘the disabled’ but part of an international community of ‘disabled persons’. We may share in our experience of disability, but we are also unique and different in our own ways but we’re not a uniform and a homogenous bunch of people.
Indeed, our goal as disabled people is to break down the disabling barriers that still exist around the world. And to emphasise the fact that we want to be full part of our world and societies. Affirming that we are disabled is an affirmation that our disability is not due to the fact we have an impairment but a proclamation that we believe our societies have failed us and it should change in a way as to take us into account as whole human beings.,
We want to be actively included in all areas of society and we want to be involved in matters that concern us. And that means that we are part of society and not remain left apart from it. The motto adopted by the international disabled movement says it best:
Nothing about us, without us!
Note: This entry was last edited on April 10, 2013.