Disability (grimace). There is a small part of me that cringes when I hear that word, for often it is heard with real (or imagined) inflection that denotes a negative meaning. Occasionally, I get some “flack” from some of my readers about using the term “disability” so freely. Some folks hate the word and avoid it all costs. Others embrace it freely, caring not what the “label” may be since they are struggling to simply cope with WHAT IS. Recently, a fellow client at Fidos For Freedom used the term “differently abled”. I like that! That is the first time I’ve heard that particular variation. At Fidos For Freedom (where my hearing assistance/balance assist partner comes from), numerous programs are designed to carry the maximum “punch” in creating awareness in our community. One program is the dAP (disABILITY Awareness Program). Demonstrations are given at schools, churches, community groups, fairs, and much more to inform and teach the public about the different types of assistance dogs available, partnered with people with various disabilities. The program focuses on the abilities of all people and how an assistance dog can provide independence to people who do things “differently” as a result of chronic disease, invisible disabilities, hearing loss, mobility challenges, and much more.
Personally, I use the word ‘disabled’ freely for it is the wording in the Federal law that protects my rights as an individual who happens to have disabilities. As long as the law uses the term, I will continue to use it in order to identify with my freedoms – not my actual disability. I’m all for changing the term “disability” to something less negative, but until that happens on the federal level – I’m sticking with the term that protects my rights. Labels are awful aren’t they? I actually prefer “person with disabilities” for it identifies me as a person FIRST, and the disability second – as a descriptor, not a noun. I’ve been a member of the American Association for People with Disabilities for a number of years. They have done a lot of terrific work in laying the foundation for future laws that protect Americans who happen to be “differently abled”. Do I hope the word is eventually abolished and changed to something more politically correct? Well sure I do… but in the meantime I will continue to use a word that represents my freedom as an individual with disabilities.
Why is the Word So Negative?
Many people who hate the word “disabled” explain that it reminds them they are different. Yet we are. Acceptance of that is key IMHO to truly becoming independent in spite of a “disability”. One reader explained, “the word makes it sound as if I’m broken, or flawed”. It’s a shame society (and sometimes our peer groups) create this false picture of what a disability is. Often these negative connotations are the result of interactions with people who do not live with physical, mental, or emotional limitations that require a “new way”. People can be uncaring and mean (and you don’t have to be in junior high to experience this!). Sometimes the most hurtful things are said by people who actually care about us and are struggling to understand. Ignorance (not stupidity) is often to blame. It’s very difficult – but when you have the opportunity to correct and inform someone who doesn’t get it, do so in a proactive (not reactive) way. I try to remember that what I say may influence how this person interacts with someone else who has a disability in the future.
I believe that those who are born with a disability have the hardest time accepting the term. For example, I have met culturally Deaf people who really despise the word. (The culturally Deaf are identified with a capital “D” to identify a group of individuals who use ASL as their primary means of communication). I’ve often wondered if deaf people (lowercase “d” to identify adventitious deafness) are more accepting of the word because they experienced “normal hearing” for a time and now understand the difference because they are living WITHOUT a sense they once had? I had a Deaf friend at CSD complain that the word “slapped them with a label that meant they couldn’t do something”. I have struggled to understand that. Deaf (and many deaf) people cannot hear. What is wrong with that? Perhaps their thinking is that by accepting that label it requires the adoption of a number of other labels such as “slow”, “dumb”, “broken”, “reject”, “mistake”, and “different”. People who cannot see well without corrective lenses don’t fear being labeled with other words! Why do people with hearing loss fear that? I don’t hear in a normal way. So what?
I’ve heard others mention that the word makes them remember there are things they cannot do. I recently watched a YouTube video of a young Deaf lady who was “going off” on the fact that the only thing she cannot do is HEAR. Anything else she wanted to do she could, and she was not “disabled”. Yet the ADA protects her rights as a Deaf person to insure she has equal access to public events, education, doctor visits, and much more by requiring ASL interpretation so that she may interact on equal footing with those who use their voices to communicate. I suppose I’m a realist. I don’t understand the problem with being aware of what I cannot do. I understand that as a result of Meniere’s disease and hearing with a cochlear implant I will never:
- Be a rollercoaster tester.
- Wash windows on skyscrapers.
- Be a DJ
- Be a judge on American Idol
- Swing on a swing set (until they come up with an adult size seat similar to the protective seats for toddlers!)
- Tune pianos
- HEAR without the assistance of my CI
So what? I don’t center my life around this knowledge, nor do I attach any value to “being able to” as opposed to “not being able to”. I chose to enjoy OTHER things. 1) When I go to amusement parks I’m the official photographer. I ride a great number of rides that do not go “around and around”. I can throw a dart that insures I come home with large, ridiculous stuffed gorillas. 2) I can wash windows on lower levels. 3) I can listen to music and “ad lib” as best I can, but if it is a new song I’m lost. 4) I can be a judge on other types of panels. 5) I can climb on jungle gyms. 6) I can PLAY the piano (took 8 years of lessons!). 7) I can hear SO MUCH now as a result of my wonderful CI!
I believe that problem is that OTHERS often attach other meanings to the word “disability”. When they choose to do that, it fosters an attitude of treating a person with disability differently, or of having different expectations of them. Is this where the word “goes wrong”? I welcome your feedback and comments. As long as you don’t swear at me – I’ll post anything even if it disagrees with my own personal opinion. After all, if my desire is that you respect my opinion I can only promise to do the same. So many of you write me to give me “thumbs up”, or “thumbs down” in response to a post. I still welcome feedback privately as well! However, this is a topic I really welcome your feedback for I really am trying to understand everyone’s opinion about this word. I believe voicing opinions about this may help others! So “voice yourself”!
© 2011 Personal Hearing Loss Journal