Disability is such a wide-ranging term that people can interpret it in a hundred different ways – and people can, occasionally, choose to interpret it in something approaching a moronic and deliberate attempt to challenge an increasing orthodoxy that disability really does need to be considered in terms of humanity and how people with disabilities can contribute to society. Oh, and how society has a responsibility to support people of all stripes in developing their abilities.
Now, I’ve been rather strong there in my opening paragraph, and I know that’s going to be a bit contentious for some. People might object to the use of the word “moronic”, but I do get rather passionate about the cause of disability, and it’s perhaps reliant on me to justify my use of the word, as well as examine the orthodoxy of disability – and yet with a growing minority of people wanting to consider alternatives.
In fact, I first want to challenge the word “disability” itself; I can’t help but wonder if it might need a positive makeover and, indeed, fall out of favour like others – cripple, deaf-mute and lame disappeared a long time ago and are now considered insults. By the 1980s and 90s, “handicapped” was gradually replaced with “disabled” as a new way of thinking about disability emerged – called the social model. Attitudes change and as a consequence so does language.
Recently there has been a shift towards person-first language and now “people with disabilities” is often more popular in general usage over its predecessor “disabled people”. Perhaps you’ll notice my use of that expression in the first paragraph here. There’s an increasing frequency as well to emphasis “ability”: dis-ability or disAbility.
In April 2015, an online campaign was started to urge the toy industry to include positive representation for the 150 million children worldwide with disabilities. Princesses were created with guide dogs or wheelchairs, and hearing aids were given to fairies You can take a look in more detail at ToyLikeMe.
The images convey not a shred of pity, no hint of inability, no inkling of dependence – the many things that people associate with the word disabled. But the word itself; it’s an ugly lump of a word; stout, ugly, cumbersome, and dour. It conveys a meaning, to be sure, but language evolves over time, and this particular word has adapted to have a variety of connotations in peoples’ minds; it’s become outdated, and we’ve become outdated in needing a cumulative word to signify a range of individual, unique issues that aren’t the same, don’t mean the same thing, and each have different effects to their “owners.”
You see, I would argue that we don’t necessarily need an overarching word; it’s redundant, because people don’t need to be split apart from “mainstream” society – you see the difficulties there already. Why should there be a mainstream and non-mainstream society? Why can’t we work on curing and accommodating differences, to ensure that everyone can contribute to their communities?
So many phrases are used instead of disability, and I’m sorry, but I just find them patronising and rather insulting; special needs, differently-able, different, ability not disability, inclusive, and so on.
The comedian Adam Hills has a part of his leg missing and, in an interview with the Guardian in 2012, declared “mutant” a much better word than “disabled”. “It sounds so much cooler,” he said. I can imagine that some people would actually quite like the thought of that, especially fans of comic books like the X-Men, but I struggle to imagine that catching on more generally.
Disability is a delicate flower around which the public tread with care. Often, people who challenge the increasing orthodoxy make comments about disability with a twist of the mouth and an avowedly unapologetic air to their statements. They often know that they’re challenging peoples’ views of accepting people with differences, and so make a statement of their own views.
People with disabilities are often described as unable to contribute, or hailed as an inspiration, but neither are accurate for most people. Not all disabled people are “special”; they span the spectrum of human life from talented to mediocre just like the rest of humanity.
So does a benign descriptive word, free from negative connotation, actually exist?
The bio-etheticist Rosmary Garland Thomson came near to a solution when she spoke in April 2015 of disability as a form of “human variation” arguing that disability should be understood as a reality to be accommodated, not a problem to be eliminated.
Human variation? Hmm, it could work. I’ve always used the expression “difference” up until now, but I want to trial human variation to see how it catches on, and how the possibility of finally having a term that’s a catch-all and doesn’t actually need to acknowledge a person’s disabilities; it merely acknowledges that a variety of people will have a variety of skills, and that it shouldn’t matter whether that scientist over there is in a wheelchair or this artist over here paints with his feet. It should be as normal as any variety.
We are all definitely variants of the human race, and the term can indeed encompass everything from a facial birthmark to someone with glasses, and someone with no limbs, but it’s also a term wide open to a charge of “political correctness gone mad”. We should be sensitive to that charge, because we should be able to bring people with us on any attempt to change perceptions, but we also can’t regulate what people are thinking inside their heads; whether they outwardly profess to support the changes or not, they might well not entirely feel comfortably with it internally – and that must be allowed as well. This isn’t about being politically correct, but about encompassing people who have previously been set apart from wider society because of their conditions, and it’s important to change that mindset, as well as encourage those who struggle with the change to at least feel comfortable knowing that the changes are for the benefit of society, rather than just some general language amendments designed to make people feel different about themselves.
As the academic and broadcaster Tom Shakespeare says: “Negative association will pin itself to any word. Changing parlance will do nothing if there is not a shift in attitudes towards disability”. I couldn’t agree more with Tom on that, but it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t at least try to shift consciousness in the right direction. It happened with the gay rights movement, with the feminist movement, with the black lives matter movement – it’s happening in the atheism movement (slowly) right now, especially in America – and so we should be able to appreciate a future changing zeitgeist where this isn’t see as “politically correct” but logical, economically viable, and entirely effective for getting the most out of all of human variation.
We all have a personal and unique experience of disability, and we all have a story — whether personally affected, or whether through someone we know with a disability. Given the huge variations in human ability, we are bound to encounter disability in some form or another, either personally or through someone who does. Given how common place disability now is within society, why are we still so intolerant about the range of variation that there is? Why do we struggle to accept ramps in our buildings? Why do we grumble and complain when lifts are installed into older buildings that cause some temporary disruption? Why does every adaptation seem like a huge issue to our lives, when actually it’s just a convenience to give a equal footing to those without a natural footing.
It’s – quite frankly – disgraceful when it doesn’t happen. It directly reflects on us as humans to be so unaccommodating, and we should criticise those who are lacking in tolerance and acceptance of those of us with disabilities. We are as no better than the worst amongst us; those who treat people with differences differently – or worse or patronisingly – are a reflection on how we view people who are different to ourselves.
Whether we have the means and intent to accommodate the demands of disability, or if we struggle to understand a view that we cannot fathom being a part of, we all need to come to a better understanding of what it means to be disabled; we as a society need to ask ourselves how we can better integrate all variations into our lives, instead of arguing about why or whether or not it’s worth it.
The real issues of those with disabilities needs to be better addressed. We need to shift this sad and pitied, shallow, discriminating and oppressive perspective and change the way we see and deal with disabilities as a whole.
It’s often assumed that you have suffered a grave misfortune if you’re disabled, either through birth or as the result of an accident. Well, sometimes there has been a grave misfortune – you could have suffered horrendously, have inherited a terrible genetic disorder, or been mistreated – but that doesn’t mean there should be any shame attached to having a disability, or that we should be pitied for having one. People with disabilities often have incredibly strong and creative skills in adapting to their environments. Unfortunately it’s the naive “able-bodied” majority that insists having a disability is a terrible thing; society is set up for the able-bodied majority rather than for everyone, and that needs to change. Offering simple solutions to issues – ramps for wheelchair users, lifts to offer access to all floors, having doors that are accessible to all (rather than having a separate entrance for people with disabilities, to really split them off from everyone else who wants to access the building) – are all simple, easy solutions that shouldn’t require any special or particular effort on our part. We should just treat this as a normal part of everyday life, because that’s what they are; entirely normal and unremarkable, and it’s mind-boggling to me that we’re still having these conversations that make it remarkable.
Instead of empowering people with challenges to overcome them and allow their adaptability skills free rein, society so often determines disability to be dreaded and a burden. Access to equipment, therapies, treatments, medications, surgeries, etc. are severely limited; you need tenacity and, sometimes, insider knowledge if you’re going to wade through Access to Work applications, Social Services advice, or disability benefits, and you’re often treated as somewhat less than if you claim financial or other assistance from the state. If you don’t fund your lifestyle entirely yourself, the conversation seems to have been turned round to being a drain on society and someone who isn’t contributing to our collective well-being.
Please don’t misunderstand (and if you are misunderstanding me here, it’s rather willful, I hope you don’t mind me saying); anyone who does sponge off the system, or use a condition or difference as an excuse to not do anything, or at least to try, should be given a swift clout around the head, as they absolutely give the overwhelming majority a bad press, a bad name, and a continued excuse by funders to cut service provision based on a few case studies.
Anyone who refuses to contribute to society in some way when they could needs to re-evaluate their life, and I am all for giving them a swift boot up the backside to encourage them to think differently. However, we need to be able to differentiate between those idiots and the majority, who – in many cases – have been beaten down by the system, struggle to access any services that could actually give them new opportunities, or who are treated differently because they look different. So often, that can have a wearing effect on a person’s outlook; it’s okay to be positive, and oftentimes it’s entirely possible, but when you’re confronted by society’s negative or thoughtless opinions of people who are different, then there’s a sincere problem in the way we view our fellow human beings. In that instance, the problem doesn’t lie with them; the problem lies with all of us.
I get particularly frustrated when I see people with disabilities being pitied because of their condition; “Oh, poor him, it must be so hard” or “Oh, isn’t she so brave for managing to cope with everything she has to go through.” Whenever I hear that, I just want to slap the speaker round the face with a wet haddock. That attitude needs to change; no-body pities me because I’ve got green eyes (well, maybe they do, and I’ve just never heard them) or cut my hair incredibly short. That’s just treated as normal; because it is. I can’t do anything about the colour of my eyes, and why would I? They’re just a normal part of who I am, and of course no-one feels sorry for me as a result. So why do I need sympathy for a disability – or, more specifically, a variation?
Here’s the thing that people need to realise above all else: Disability is normal. Yes, I know, that’s a rather challenging point of view, but it’s entirely true; it’s a key component to the variety of life. Just because society is struggling to keep up with the concept that a people with disabilities can contribute just as much as someone without disabilities, as well as accepting the negative connotations to the word itself, doesn’t mean that having a disability is an instant demand to be pitied. People with disabilities do not solicit pity; they want to be treated like you would treat anyone else. But in order for that to happen, we all need to be listening better to what is actually needed; we can’t just presume that the sunnier side of life is all there is when it comes to disabilities because we make the assumption, “Oh, but they’re always so happy. They’re always laughing and joking around.” Anyone who says that – fetch the wet kipper. Life is so often hard for everyone, and we need to find ways of making it easier.
When you next meet someone with a disability, don’t feel sorry for them, and certainly don’t patronise them by pitying them. Challenge your own thinking; realise, when you think in that way, that you’re causing the continuing problem. Think instead; “What can I do to start making changes in our shared world? How can we collectively change society to a level playing field?”
Do not – do not – pity or discount a person because they am disabled. Recognise that person as a human being and actually do something about it; give them the freedom to explore their potential, and help to make changes – in the world around you or in the collective zeitgeist – to ensure that we’re getting the best out of everyone. Anything else is – to put it bluntly – a waste of everyone’s time.