Introduction

The Language of Disability

Atlas Assistance Dogs volunteer Ryan explains how the language around disability is a very personal choice — one that deserves respect.

The Language of Disability

by Ryan Padovani

The language we use to talk about disability is complicated and constantly shifting. In recent decades, larger society has deemed language like “person with a disability” more correct than saying “disabled person.” However, people outside of and within the disability community have their own opinions. There is no universal “right” or “wrong” choice. The best we can do is respect the individual choices that members of the disability community make for themselves. I think it’s important to explore why an individual might make a certain choice regarding themself and their own relationship with disability.

I personally identify very specifically and deliberately with the phrase “disabled person.” I want to take some time to explain why that is, as I feel it opens up a larger, important conversation around what it means to have a disability. 

Why I’m Not a Person with a Disability

The primary reason I identify as a “disabled person” rather than as “a person with a disability” is because of the intention behind the phrase. 

“Person with a disability” is person-first language. The ideology behind it is that by referring to someone with person-first language, you are showing them that you see their humanity as separate from and more important than their disability. 

The problem with this for many disabled people is that our disabilities profoundly impact the way we perceive and interact with ourselves and the world around us. As a result, our personhood and our disability are inextricably linked. There are disabled people who staunchly believe that their disability is a defining characteristic of who they are. In trying to separate them from their disability through person-first language, you actually represent their personhood far less accurately. 

Why I Don’t Use Special Needs Or Another Term

Another reason I specifically identify as a disabled person is because using euphemisms increases the stigma surrounding the word and by extension the concept of disability. Euphemisms like “special needs” become popular because of the deeply ingrained societal belief that being disabled is an inherently negative thing that no one should want to be associated with. While those who use such language may not necessarily believe this themselves, their language reinforces the idea. 

A similar term is “handicapable.” The intention behind it is to focus on what a disabled person can do rather than what they can’t. While this is supposed to be a form of positivity and empowerment, it can come across as simply wishing to ignore the very real challenges that disabled people face. It suggests that we should ignore limitations because they are negative. The problem with this is that limitations aren’t inherently negative. 

There’s nothing wrong with not being able to do something. Health is not a moral imperative.

Why Acknowledging Limitations in Disability Matters

The other problem is that if you choose to ignore limitations or pretend that they don’t exist, you can’t adequately understand or address the needs of disabled people. My disability is on the more mild end of the spectrum. Because of this, I’ve had people try to tell me that “there’s nothing I can’t do.” 

There are multiple problems with this belief and the language that reinforces it. 

First, there are in fact many things that I simply cannot do, and that’s okay. Second, to pretend that a disabled person has no limitations is to pretend that society is not designed to exclude disabled people. Using language to pretend limitations don’t exist ignores the systemic barriers that disabled people face. 

Why the Freedom to Choose Your Disability Language Matters

Ultimately, I identify as disabled because I like the statement it makes about my relationship to my disability: that it is a significant part of who I am, and one I am proud of. 

Language is a highly personal choice, though. There are individuals that choose to identify specifically as people with disabilities because it more accurately reflects their personal relationship to disability. 

Everyone deserves to have their choice of language respected. The language we use to refer to disability makes a powerful, deeply personal statement. If you aren’t sure how somebody prefers to be referred to with regards to their disability, it’s always best to ask. If you’re a member of the disability community reading this, whether you consider yourself a disabled person, a person with a disability, or something else, remember that your disability is nothing to be ashamed of, and you deserve to use whatever language you feel best reflects that. 

About Atlas Assistance Dogs

Atlas Assistance Dogs is a non-profit organization that fundamentally expands access to assistance dogs. We support people with disabilities (or disabled people) to train and certify their own service dog using positive, ethical training methods. At Atlas, we believe anyone who would benefit from a qualified assistance dog should be able to have one. 

We work with people with a wide range of disabilities and people who wish to train their own service dog. Atlas also offers a comprehensive Academy for professional trainers interested in becoming service dog trainers.

For more information about Atlas’ Client Certification program or other training services, please visit www.atlasdog.org or contact info@atlasdog.org.

About the Author

Ryan is a writer and college student with a love for music and dogs. He lives in Delaware with his family, which includes a sassy husky named Roxy and a goofy pug/chihuahua mix named Suzy Q.

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