We are fortunate to live in an era when the diversity of human lives and experiences is gaining momentum, is widely developed, discussed, and addressed. It is slowly but surely making its way into all corners of society, both in online and offline reality.
Despite that, disability is still one of the most delicate flowers out there in that regard, around which the public treads with caution. It becomes clear which words are definitely out of the picture, e.g. “lame”, “crippled”, “retarded”, “disadvantaged”, “less fortunate” and “exotic”. Being aware of these verbal “guidelines” are fairly and clearly marking a no-go zone. Yet, the language which promotes inclusion, empowerment, and diversity has not been developed just as well. Fear exists around addressing the topic “wrongly”: it is not in the innate human nature to use abusive language and is something most of us wish to avoid.
So, what language should we use?
In the 20th century, the novel word “handicapped” came into use and had its rise and fall. By the 70-s and 80-s, it was majorly replaced by the word “disability”. That’s where we are at. Now, we have out-ruled “handicapped”, and find that the definition of “dis” is “to have a primitive, negative or reversing force”, and we are not cool with that anymore in 2020.
From the words of persons with disabilities themselves, opinions on this matter widely vary. Some claim that they wish not to be “dissed”, and that their lives are not less full or less able than those of persons without disabilities. However, some claim that they indeed have a disability and see it objective terminology and feel not any resentment towards it. This point makes it clear that the words we use should be thought of in every single conversation separately, accepted terms may vary from person to person and must be openly and respectfully considered.
While the d-word still conveys the meaning, it does not support the modern celebratory sentiment of the whole range of human variation. Is it time to stop using the word “disability” then? Does a descriptive word, free from bias, negative and disempowering connotation, actually exist?
The answer is simply not yet. But it is well necessary to keep the following thought in mind: when attitudes change, words change; not the other way around. Feel free to use and experiment with phrases such as alternately-abled, differently-abled, and other clumsy but perhaps better-sounding terms for the time being.
It may be necessary that we as a society in a current moment work more on the very attitudes towards disability and live to see the further evolution in the language used to describe all range of human variation in an empowering, respectful and considerate manner.