The words disabled, and disability is neither bad nor dirty. Yet society has tried to change these words by using cute fluffy euphemisms, that in the end, are quite harmful to the Disability Community (Example differently abled, handi capable). Disabled does not just describe a person; the word can also describe an environment. For instance, in a city that has an older downtown, you see many older buildings exempted from the accessible building codes of today. Meaning that many buildings have stairs instead of an elevator, thus if someone who is disabled can get into the building, we limit them to the first floor, still assuming the doors are wide enough for wheelchair access. Side note: many houses have stairs leading to the front and back doors, so houses are not accessible as well. This is even in newer communities. I have always been told it is cheaper to build for accessibility than to retrofit.
In the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a euphemism is the substitution of an agreeable or inoffensive expression for one that may offend or suggest something unpleasant”. With the euphemisms, it is not the disabled individuals who use these words or the community of disabled individuals, so what does that say? When one uses the following words: Differently abled, special needs, handi capable, (dis) abled—the only disability, is a poor attitude. Using this language minimizes and belittles the person who has the disability. They are sugar-coated, careful linguistics, designed to avoid the nature of the reality for those who are disabled and make room for the ableism problems we face today. Clear-cut words such as disability or disabled do not change the biological nature of a disability. I will not one day wake up with a positive attitude and not be autistic, it will not change the fact that loud gatherings can cause sensory overwhelm. And while I do not speak for the entire disability or the autistic community, I think I can safely say that we dislike these phrases and find that they are condescending and demeaning.
Intent vs. Harm
Let’s be real what the euphemism is really trying to erase disability from society, to create an easy pill for those not dealing with a disability, to swallow. Disability to those not living its reality is uncomfortable simply because it is unknown, but we have built a language to comfort them. Now maybe, this is not the intent when people use these phrases, they may not know what to say, however, it’s not about intent, it is about the harm done to the community or the individual.
I heard a great story for explaining intent vs. harm. Sam and Quinn are out together, and Sam accidentally shoots Quinn. Sam does not mean nor intend to shoot Quinn, but he is bleeding. If Sam stands there and goes on about how they did not intend to shoot Quinn, they are making the whole situation about them rather than attending to the harm that they caused, as Quinn is still hurt. In the end, it’s about the harm one does to the other person. Converting the words disability and disabled into euphemisms accomplishes nothing positive for the community.
It was not too far in our distant past that people with disabilities were associated with bad omens and witchcraft. This says something that if one does not understand what is happening, it is to be feared. I consider dealing with ableist micro-aggressions in others is more of a daily issue. For instance, people will say “get better soon” which is said when people have something like the cold or flu. However, when dealing with a chronic illness with or without the addition of a disability, one will never get better, only learning how to work around symptoms and flare-ups. Their intent is to be nice, but it can hurt the person with the chronic illness who can realize that they will never be the same as they used to be.
Eli Clair eloquently wrote about the concept of mind-body changes in his book “Brilliant Imperfection”. He wrote that the typical person fears the mind and body changes that happen when one becomes disabled. I am not a heartless person. I get it. Becoming disabled even for a short time can suck and can be hard. I will not pretty the words or my experience though. For me, it is not being dyslexic, autistic, or experiencing extreme anxiety that is hard, it is the attitudes of a society that we, as disabled people, will never be good enough and that we need a “cure”. I would prefer that ableism, racism, and homophobia be to end than not be Autistic.
Micro-aggressions, I would bet, are an everyday occurrence for people with disabilities. One may think saying: “I could never do what you do” is a compliment to a disabled person, in actuality, it is quite insulting. A disabled person has no choice but to do what needs to be done. They have to figure out hacks to make things work in our inaccessible world and still struggle, and have to rework these ‘hacks’ to make things ‘easier’. So, saying you could never do what they do… yes, it is insulting. Saying “I will pray for you?” is a micro-aggression, even if it seems like it is coming from a place of caring. When one says this, it assumes the disabled person is of the same religion or is even religious at all. My thought is the person saying this, can not accept the person for who they are, and the question is why can they not accept the person in front of them? Micro-aggressions are subtle, and they may even be unintentional, but the statements are still discriminatory to members of a marginalized group, especially those disabled.
Intersectionality and Disability
When I am talking about disability, I am not talking about just the white, Cis, straight community. Disability knows no man-made convention, such as ethnicity, class, gender, religion, political affiliation, or love. As Kimberlé Crenshaw defined intersectionality as a “study of overlapping or intersecting social identities and related systems of oppression, domination, or discrimination” (2) Many individuals in the disability community are exactly what Professor Crenshaw described as oppressed not just because of their disability, but other issues such as ethnicity, class, gender, and their expression of love.
What I can say is the disability community is the largest marginalized community in the world, with roughly 15% of the world’s population, according to the World Health Organization. That roughly works out to 1.1 billion people. Yet with this stunning number of individuals that are disabled in the world, why is so little known? Why in western society, via mainstream TV shows, movies, books, and even news, are we not seeing a community that is so vast? This needs to change. If it was not for the BIPOC women and other marginalized women I have read and listened to, I really would not understand what Disability Justice Movement is or what grassroots organization truly is, and this is coming from someone who deals with disability. Racialized individuals are the ones that started the Stonewall Riot and have been at the front of many, if not all, movements. I suggest mainstream society has not given due to what we owe to racialized women and the LGBTQTIA2S+ community.