More and more these days, there is a growing need for political correctness – be it with respect to race, sexuality, gender, or disability. The shift from the archetypal, misogynistic, narrow-minded approach is a movement I wholeheartedly support. To support a changing paradigm, though, does not exclude you from being able to disagree with elements that develop as a result of the emerging paradigm. The use of the term ‘differently-abled,’ which is gaining popularity in the Cape Town Disabled Community if not internationally as one of the alternatives to ‘disabled,’ is something I disagree with. Before you delete the website and stop reading the blog, at least give me the next couple of minutes to outline why it is I find myself repeatedly disagreeing with the shift from ‘disabled’ to ‘differently-abled.’
While I might not agree with the term, there is a lot to be said for the ‘differently-abled’ argument. One of the strongest arguments I’ve heard in its defense, in fact, was that it acknowledges the different strengths and weaknesses in individuals, thereby highlighting what disabled individuals can do rather than what they can. The reason behind the term – as a way of highlighting what one can do as opposed to what they can’t – is something that I like about it. The problem, for me, comes primarily in the fact that while it acknowledges the strengths versus weaknesses argument, ‘differently-abled’ does not do enough to acknowledge the significant physical, emotional, and psychological limitations that a disability places on an individual just by the nature of its existence. These added limitations can be, and often are, severely limiting and disabling to the individual they effect. While I personally prefer ‘disabled’ as it does not shy away from the negatives that are natural attributes of the phenomenon, I really do appreciate the way in which ‘differently-abled’ emphasises the positive attributes of an individual. While ‘differently-abled’ might highlight the positive attributes of a person, I do not feel that the term is sufficient enough to communicate the dramatic impact of disability. For me, ‘differently-abled’ just sugar-coats disability a little too much for my taste.
People can live full and amazing lives despite disabilities but an individual’s ability does not change the fact that disability is substantially limiting. A disability is still a monumental struggle. While the term ‘disabled’ might not emphasise the strength/weakness argument as well as ‘differently-abled’ does, one must keep in mind that every individual has their strengths and weaknesses irrespective of whether or not they have a disability. From that perspective, ‘differently-abled’ cheapens the ‘strengths v weaknesses’ argument as it does not seem to fully acknowledge that everyone has their limitations. Furthermore, the term ‘differently-abled’ does not highlight the social injustices that are visited upon disabled individuals as a result of the way society largely operates.
Human society, for the most part, is extremely ableist. While the term ‘differently-abled’ might gel better with some than ‘disabled,’ I do not feel that the term addresses the ableist social mentality adequately enough. For me, ‘differently-abled’ does not acknowledge the extent to which society implicitly and explicitly oppresses disabled people. In short, it doesn’t ‘call bullshit’ as well as its increasingly less-popular alternative. The ‘social ableist mentality’ is one of the most compelling reasons that I prefer ‘disabled’ over ‘differently-abled.’ That said, I must point out that I define myself as ‘disabled’ not by some physical, psychological, or emotional problem that makes me operate slightly differently to ‘the norm.’ I am ‘disabled’ because the way that the ‘social ableist mentality’ is disabling to the way I have to operate as a result of the physical problem. In short, I am not disabled because I have something wrong with me; I am disabled because there is something deeply and troublingly wrong with society.