Quicklink: Stella Young on communication guidelines and disability

The Drum: Reporting it Right: how the Government got it wrong

Reporting it Right tells us that we must use “person first language”. We must say that we are people with disabilities and put the focus on our personhood, lest Joe Public get confused about whether we fit in the animal, vegetable or mineral column.

Let me make this quite clear. I do not identify as a person with a disability. I’m a disabled person. And I’ll be a monkey’s disabled uncle if I’m going to apologise for that.

In her latest column, Lisa Egan sums up why many people identify as disabled people as opposed to people with disabilities.

I just have a real problem with the phrase “person with a disability” and the notion of “having a disability.”

I am disabled. More specifically, I am disabled by a society that places social, attitudinal and architectural barriers in my way. This world we live in disables me by treating me like a second-class citizen because I have a few impairments — most obviously a mobility impairment.

Like Lisa, I subscribe to the social model of disability, which makes a clear distinction between impairment and disability. Impairment describes our physical or neurological state – like paraplegia or blindness – while disability is created by the barriers we encounter in society – like buildings with no lifts or information not being provided in formats we can access. To say that a person “has a disability” is to say that these barriers are our responsibility. My disability exists not because I use a wheelchair, but because the broader environment isn’t accessible.

In my own home, where I’ve been able to create an environment that works for me, I’m hardly disabled at all. I still have an impairment, and there are obviously some very restrictive things about that, but the impact of disability is less. In environments that are less disabling, I’m free to refer to myself in other ways that make me feel proud. In fact, “crip” is my preferred identifying term.

There’s a lot more to chew on with respect to language choices in the full article, and there’s less arsehattery than usual in the comments (which still means too much for some people, I know).

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tigtog (aka Viv) is the founder of this blog. She lives in Sydney, Australia: husband, 2 kids, cat, house, garden, just enough wine-racks and (sigh) far too few bookshelves.

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8 responses to “Quicklink: Stella Young on communication guidelines and disability”

  1. Megpie71

    Quick note: you need to fix the second link to the article – it’s pointing back to the article location on HaT, and thus 404-ing.

  2. tigtog

    Thanks for letting me know, Meg.

  3. Jo

    Interesting link! I did a bit of a research project around language and disability in my last year of high school, and found similar things.

    It constantly astounds me, though, how comments on these sorts of things always end up being just one thing: whining about parking spaces. Because that’s definitely the most important thing here, right? Making sure that ‘they’ don’t take up ‘our’ normal parking spaces, as per one comment, and how unfair the whole idea is. Sigh.

  4. wondering

    Quick question. I hope this is not inappropriate to ask: I work as a technical writer and have to discuss accessibility and various impairments in regards to usability of our products. Previously I was educated to use “people with disabilities” (or, if I needed to be more specific, “people with x disability”). Would it be more appropriate to say “people with impairments”?

    Thanks in advance.

  5. Notgruntled

    In the USA, the early-’90s Americans with Disabilities Act improved accessibility requirements. Since then, a lot of organizations have copped out of the language debate by referring to “ADA access” (“ADA restrooms,” “ADA parking,” etc.). Which annoys the hell out of me, because the message I see is “we are doing what the law requires and no more.”

  6. tigtog

    @wondering, I’m pretty sure that Stella’s main point is that there is no one-size-fits-all cookie-cutter answer. It’s going to depend on exactly what your products do to address which impairment, if what you’re selling is targeted assistive tech, in which case I imagine that describing how the product compensates for specific disabilities is the point. e.g. when I worked as a physiotherapist, the literature about strapping tape said it was for use in conditions like “ankle injuries”, not for “people with ankle injuries”. There are going to be times when using the “people with X” phrasing is going to be unnecessarily clunky, but then there are also going to be times when it’s going to be the best choice.

  7. Nell

    An interesting article and obviously different people are going to respond in different ways but, speaking purely for myself, I prefer to be viewed as a person first with any reference to my disabilities after. If not it feels as if my disabilities are the focus, not me. They already cause me enough difficulty in daily life. I don’t want them to define me as well.

  8. tigtog

    Like so many aspects of language, Nell – there is no hivemind.

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