Is something ‘right’ simply because it is legal? This question has been bugging me immensely recently; particularly from a disability perspective.
So often I hear someone saying “person with a disability” and it gets my blood boiling. When I ask them not to use that phrase in front of me, they defend themselves by citing the fact that ‘person with disability’ is the term used in South Africa’s legislation. In other words, they are using the ‘correct’ legal term and I should just get over myself. While, yes, ‘person with disability’ is a valid phrase in disability circles, I have a deep-seated objection to it as I find it deeply offensive. While my disability does not define me, I am defined by it.
At 21, I feel like I’m pretty secure in my identity. I know what I like; I know what I don’t. There are some moments I wish disability didn’t feature in my life but I’d be deceiving myself to deny its impact on my life. For better or worse, Cerebral Palsy is a part of me. For me to deny my whole identity because of the fact that CP might affect the way I carry off wearing a suit because I’m in a wheelchair is just as daft as if I were to ignore the disability altogether. Just because I’m disabled does not mean that my life ends. By the same token, I’m aware of the ways that my disability shaped my sense of self.
This fluid, somewhat-paradoxical relationship between selfhood and disability is precisely why ‘person with disability’ doesn’t sit right with me. As I’ve argued some time ago, this phrase doesn’t pay tribute to the extent disability can be something fundamental to your identity. Instead, it separates the person (and, by extension, their ‘personhood’) from their disability. Rather than acknowledging how disability is one cornerstone to your identity, the phrase implies that disability is some external force which happens to you. I vehemently oppose this idea. While you could argue that ‘person with disability’ allows for the distinction between disability as your identity and just a part of it, the implication that you are some passive entity on which the ‘external’ acts disregards the nuanced relationship between Disabled and Disability.
Given my objections to certain terms, does a politico-commercial entity have the right to dictate which terms I use? Can my employer ‘demand’ I use a particular phrase in my writing even if it is something I have an extreme political objection to? I don’t think so. I say this for two reasons: first, a legal term doesn’t necessarily consider the nuances of a situation has they have to be rigidly defined; second, there is absolutely no way rejecting ‘person with a disability’ would substantially change the content of what I’m saying. Other than the fact that ‘person with disability’ is a convention in some areas of society, there is no reason why ‘disabled person’ could not convey exactly the same meaning.
That said, an easy counter-argument would be that an organisation’s convention which should be obeyed. In this context, then, should you switch to their desired terminology? It may be a convention, be it dictated by legislation or otherwise, does not negate the term being offensive to some. In my case, I have a political and moral objection to the phrase ‘person with a disability.’ For me to bow to convention, then, would require me to break with my own morality. No matter the context, one should never surrender morals simply for convention’s sake. Just because South Africa’s legislation uses ‘person with disability’ does not mean that my moral objection to it is any less valid. While I can accept that some may accept this phrase by virtue of the fact that it is the legal construct, I am not one of them. More importantly, I will not allow its status as ‘the legal term’ to force me to back down from my beliefs.
Should we be precluded from identifying ourselves the way we see fit and for that identification to be recognised by others simply because it doesn’t align with a socio-legal construct? I think not. Do you?