Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Self-Identifying as Disabled

This morning, I read the post about a woman in a wheelchair who won (among other prizes) a treadmill.  Apparently, based on the Twitter reaction, people find this "terrible", "awkward", and "horribly inappropriate."  Danielle Perez (the woman in question) was not bothered in the least, and finds it "hilarious."  Her reaction is more along the lines of how I feel.  Because as a disabled person, there are bigger fish to fry than game show prizes that are not tailor made for you...

Like, for instance, choosing to identify as disabled.

The word disabled, apparently, makes people super uncomfortable. Uncomfortable enough that recently, I've had my identity first language (disabled) changed to person first (person with a disability.)  I've had people read things written by me where I clearly identify as disabled, and they contradict my words:  "She's not disabled she's enabled."  In this case, they found "enabled" to be more positive language.  That seems to be the assumption.  Language gets changed because other (presumably able) people believe it is negative.  I have friends whose identity first language was brought to them as problematic by able-bodied people, who seemed to think that my disabled friend used the language due to an oversight.

A lot of this thinking is due to what we're taught.  Once upon a time, I briefly pursued a major in Special Education.  There, I was taught that person first language was the only correct way to identify disabled people.  For a long time, I identified that way myself.  I was a person first, after all.  It wasn't until I came to the social media site Tumblr and connected with the disabled community there, that I was exposed to the social model of disability.

The way I explain the social model of disability to people who are unfamiliar with it is: the world was primarily built for able bodied people. If we were all expected to fly to get around, with nothing to aid us, and the only accessible places were in the air, all of us would be disabled in that case, right?  None of us knows how to fly by flapping our arms.  Able bodied people are able bodied because society is made for them.  Able bodied people can access anything they need to: public places, transportation, their entire houses, they have ways out of their houses.  Able people (if they are also white) don't have harmful attitudes and stereotypes perpetuated about them.  Able bodied babies are not presented in utero as tragedies, and parents are never presented with abortion as the first option when carrying a likely able bodied fetus.   If all the world had accessible housing and transportation, and schools and healthcare and provided mobility aids the way expectant mothers can shop for strollers and/or drivers can shop for cars, I would not consider myself disabled.

The fact is, though, this is the world I live in.  I am disabled.  It is a reality for me, and an integral part of my identity as a human being.  I would never accept someone telling me "You're not a human being!  You're a being with humanness!"  For me, being disabled is an inextricable part of my personhood.  Able bodied people changing my self-identifying language is rude and presumptuous.  It assumes that able people know better than I do about what is right for me.  For me, disabled is not a negative word.  It's part of what makes me who I am, and part of what connects me to a larger community of disabled people.  Our shared experiences with inaccessibility, ableism, adapting, symptoms specific to our diagnoses and more are all part of what makes us who we are.

As many different able bodied people that exist in the world, there are just as many different disabled people.  Some of us prefer identity first language.  I know of disabled people who do prefer person first language, too.  I even have a friend who self-identifies as a cripple.  It's  a word I personally loathe, but they find it very empowering.  Disabled people are not all the same.  If you are curious about the language your loved one prefers, always ask them first, and then respect that preference.  Know that the language they prefer might evolve as they do.

Able friends, please respect us enough to not impose your own identifying language for us over our own, and disabled friends, be proud of who you are and how you identify.  Don't be afraid to speak up, when someone challenges how you choose to speak about yourself.

I am disabled and proud!


  1. Does your sister identify as disabled? What is her CP like? Just curious as I have mild hemiplegic CP and I don't really feel as though I fit in anywhere. I feel too functional to say I'm disabled, but would say that other people would generally say I am.

  2. I shared your comment with her and she says her CP sounds very similar to yours and also that she agrees with what you said. She also feels "too functional" and that she doesn't feel she necessarily fits in anywhere, even though her CP is obvious enough to be noticed.