Yes, you can call me disabled

Anjali Forber-Pratt
Anjali Forber-Pratt
Image: Betty Shilman
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Why? Because I am! Disability is not anything to be ashamed of. In fact, I am proud of my disabled identity.

You may have been taught not to use the word “disabled.” In fact, you may have been taught to use “person-first” language in which you identify the person before their disability (i.e., person with autism, person who uses a wheelchair, individual with cerebral palsy). There is a shift happening towards “identity-first” language in which we claim our disability and center in the terms that we use (i.e, disabled, Deaf, autistic).

Historically, some disabled individuals and disability service providers pushed person-first language. Their intention was to get others not to focus on the impairment or on the disability itself, but instead to view people as people regardless of their differences. This is not wrong. In fact, at the time, it was seen as revolutionary and is a fundamental part of disability history. But even so, language evolves, and it’s time we reconsider the effect of this language on the disabled community.

Using identity-first language makes disability a marker of pride. It’s a little bit “in your face,” but that’s the point. Person-first language potentially diminishes a person’s disability identity by adding it on last. Activists from the disabled community have been pushing for identity-first language, some with a social media campaign called #SayTheWord (the word they want you to say is “disabled”).

To be clear, many disabled activists behind #SayTheWord use identity-first language interchangeably with person-first language. Both types should be embraced and accepted. But it’s also clear to many of us in the disabled community that we must collectively evolve and grow beyond the exclusive use of person-first language. Yes, this is messy, because there is no overall consensus within the disabled community on whether identity-first language versus person-first language is best. But why can’t there be room for both? Identity-first language is not offensive. Like you would with someone’s gender pronouns, follow the lead of the disabled person and his/her/their preferences.

However, there is another growing trend of euphemisms—words like “handicapable” or “differently-abled” that have often been created, adopted and promoted by non-disabled people. These euphemisms are doing more harm than good because they reinforce the negative stereotype that disability should be feared. This intentional avoidance of the term disability sends the message that there’s something inherently negative or bad about having a disability. And disabled people are tired of non-disabled people telling us what they think is best for us.

I recently co-authored an academic article (pdf) about the history of the word “disabled” and related terminology. In our article, we talk about how shying away from the actual word “disability” is a form of cultural erasure, because it suggests that people with disabilities shouldn’t identify with their disability or form community with others who have shared experiences. Instead, if the larger population embraces the word disability, it sends a message of acceptance and acknowledgement of disability as identity. A disability is something that shapes our lives, and it’s something to be proud of, not ashamed of.

A shared pride of disability could have profound effects for the disabled community. In the US in 2018, disabled individuals were unemployed more than twice as often than non-disabled individuals, according to the Department of Labor (8.0% unemployment rate of disabled individuals vs 3.7% unemployment rate of non-disabled individuals). This is not because disabled people don’t want to work, but often there are barriers to securing employment and to feeling valued as members of the workforce. Barriers that disabled individuals often face when looking to get a job include: attitudinal barriers, physical barriers (i.e., transportation, structural), and communication barriers (i.e., availability of alternative text formats, screenreader compatibility, closed captioning).

And employers should know that there are tremendous benefits to hiring disabled employees—they tend to be more reliable, able to problem-solve naturally, and lead to higher profits for employers. If we can embrace the word “disabled,” this might help to normalize the experience of disability. There might be fewer stigmas around hiring and retaining disabled individuals in the workplace. Employers might able to show that they are open to hiring disabled individuals and that disabled employees’ voices are centered within the organizational culture. For disabled employees, they may be able to form a sense of community centered around their disability pride.

Instead of dancing around the term, let’s embrace it head on. As a society, this bold acceptance of disability has the potential to create a more inclusive culture for all.

This story is part of How We’ll Win in 2019, a year-long exploration of workplace gender equality. Read more stories here.