I’ve certainly been called many different things in my life. While ‘clairvoyant’ would have been super handy, I instead got the equally unexpected ‘disabled’. It was certainly never a description I had ever imagined for myself but I’ve tried my best to embrace it. However, I received a bit of negative feedback a few weeks ago for using the words ‘disabled’ and ‘handicapped’ and I took it to heart. I couldn’t decide whether or not to write this post but I decided that I have something to say on this topic and that I’m going to say it…
Label me. Call me disabled. Call me handicapped.
I actually didn’t even know that the word ‘disabled’ was controversial. And apparently it’s not…but it can be. So that really cleared it up for me. I did know that ‘handicapped’ wasn’t the most loved term – partly due to an untrue story of the word’s origin about begging with ‘cap in hand’. I still struggle to understand the problem with either of these words. Sure, ideally everyone would call me ‘a person with a disability’ – but ideally, I wouldn’t have a disability. Life is not ideal…clearly!
The thing is, any word can be used in a derogatory way. And if that’s your experience with these words than that is unfortunate. In my experience, most people don’t say it in a way that is critical, cruel or offensive…they say it because that is how they know to describe a very obvious attribute of mine. And yes there is education that can take place but most people aren’t actively googling what the politically correct terms are for ‘those people in wheelchairs’.
(side note: don’t bother googling it…it’s confusing)
Because the lineup of people trying to learn the most up-to-date terms isn’t long, taking away the language that the general public already knows and understands is counter productive. By deciding that the words they are familiar with are off limits, we end up with a population who don’t know what the hell to say. Generally people are already sliding out of their comfort zone when talking about disabilities or talking to someone with a disability. Taking away their vocabulary is going to make it even more complicated and nerve wracking.
Nobody likes to be nervous; not knowing what is and is not okay to say makes people really uneasy. Nobody knows if they are being offensive, not offensive, behind the times, ahead of the times or completely daft altogether. So they will say nothing. And as we all know, saying nothing really helps to promote conversation and education. In turn, I think we end up isolating ourselves as a community even more because slowing conversation and education brings about mystery. I’m somewhat new at the spinal cord injury game, but I don’t think being less understood is what we’re going for.
This is what I’m going for… be kind. As long as you are saying something with kindness and respect than I can get past whatever term you use because I can trust that, to your knowledge, you are using the best one.
And if you are a person with a disability (any type of disability) then own the language and become the face of ‘disabled’ and ‘handicapped’ and any other word someone could throw at you because the words aren’t disappearing. Be you in every awesome way and help change the negative connotations and pity that are attached to some of these terms. Help change what people think of when they hear them.
We need to show the world that these words and also the people they represent aren’t scary. They don’t mean that we are mysterious and unapproachable humans. However, I seriously think we need to cut everyone some slack with their terminology because they are more scared of us than we are of them. We can slam people for not being ‘politically correct’ in a very quick social media minute but where does that get any of us?
Call me disabled. Call me handicapped. Call me whatever it is you know to call me, but always do so in kindness. It is only then that we can overcome the awkward wall between us and have a real conversation. It is only then that you will get to know the woman in the wheelchair. It is only then that you will see the struggles that this community comes up against. It is only then that we will learn something from one another and begin to break down barriers.