How important is language?

Cartoon: Man in wheelchair at bottom of stairs with a sign "Way in, Everyone welcome"

I had a really interesting conversation with some disabled friends recently about inclusive language. The timing was interesting, as it was shortly after hearing of the sad death of Mike Oliver, who was instrumental in promoting a new way of thinking about disability in the 1980s, called the social model of disability. Up to this point, the narrative was a much more medical model – the thinking was that disabled people were somehow ‘broken’, the solution being to try and ‘fix’ us, and make us more ‘normal’. The social model turned this on its head, by acknowledging that what disables people isn’t our differences, but the fact that barriers in society exclude us. As a crude example, the problem isn’t the wheelchair, it’s the steps. If everywhere had flat access, wheelchair users wouldn’t be disabled from getting around in the same way as everyone else. Their impairment doesn’t disable them, the stairs do. Many people on the autism spectrum have much to offer the workplace, but they are often disabled from gaining jobs because the interview process doesn’t work for them. There’s nothing ‘wrong’ with the autistic person, and with more appropriate assessment methods, they wouldn’t be disabled when finding work. For many disabled people, this definition can be life-changing. To realise that there is nothing wrong with you, it’s the barriers you face.

“The Social Model of Disability literally saved my life; after I understood what it was about, it was my lifeline – it freed me up to be who I am”

“It puts the onus back on society to remove the barriers”

“It’s empowering; I can direct my energies into improving my quality of life.”    (source)

I think we were all agreed that the social model is the best model we currently have to understand disability. My personal view is that the medical model has its place – I’d love the scientists to find ways of managing pain without side effects, for example – but for those of us who aren’t scientists, the focus should be on removing the barriers (physical and attitudinal) which disable, erm, disabled people.

Teacher writing on blackboard saying "you at the back, read this homework I've set for you" to a bemused blind pupil
Thanks to “Crippen” –

So what does all this have to do with language? Well, the medical model uses the term “people with disabilities” – in other words, the disability belongs to the person. The social model uses “disabled people”, as in people disabled by the barriers society put in their way. So far, so good. In disability activism, social model language is always used. At Evenbreak, social model language is always used (we exist to reduce or remove the barriers disabled people face when finding work, and thriving in the workplace). Far from believing that disabled people are a problem for organisations, we know that disabled people can be a positive asset.

The challenge is that some disabled people still use medical model language (popular in USA, but also by some in the UK).  They say they are a person first, and are not defined by their disability. Few could argue with that. But it still suggests that the disability, the problem, is owned by the individual – that society has no role to play.

In terms of inclusion, I absolutely believe that everyone has the right to define themselves how they choose. If someone chooses to use the medical model, who am I to criticise? And by only using “disabled people”, do we exclude people who choose to describe themselves as “a person with a disability”?

The real issue, my friends and I concluded, when it comes down to it, isn’t about models. It’s more about the words ‘disability’ and ‘disabled’. The prefix of ‘dis’ strongly implies ‘less than’, ‘problem’ or ‘broken’. Whilst the medical model uses those terms to describe the individual, and the social model uses those words to describe barriers in society, both are negative. We all agreed we certainly don’t feel that we are less than others, and struggle to use a negative term to describe us. We all also agreed that we dislike the (mostly American) ‘differently-abled’ (which still describes the individual, not the barriers).

So until someone much more clever than us comes up with a word to replace disabled and disability, the issue is to share awareness of the social model, so we focus on reducing barriers, not blaming disabled people. And, of course, it’s all about context. In other contexts, I’m not a disabled woman, I’m Jane, or Alex and Philippa’s Mum, or Talia’s grandmother. I’m a white woman, not a woman who is white. A gay man is a gay man, not a man who is gay. And in some contexts I’m a disabled woman – disabled by the barriers I face.

Whatever language we use, the focus should be removing barriers and creating accessibility and inclusion for all.

What words do you think would be preferable to either ‘disabled person’ or ‘person with a disability’?


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