“People with disabilities” vs “disabled people”
The way we speak about ourselves and each other matters more than we sometimes realize. Subtle changes in our language can make a huge difference when it comes to the impact it has on society. That’s probably why for a lot of people, labels are a powerful thing – in both a positive and a negative sense. I’ve always felt like they can be a real comfort because they give you something to latch onto and feel proud of. They can help you find your place in a community or give you the strength to be on your own.
Within the disabled community, there’s a lot of talk on the phrases “people with disabilities” vs “disabled people”. At first glance, it probably looks like a bit of a silly conversation because they seem so similar. Honestly, a lot of disabled people think they can be interchangeable, but I’ve never really seen them that way.
The differences between the two phrases I mentioned are pretty simple.
“People with disabilities” is an example of person first language.
From what I understand, the concept is supposed to be a show of respect. It’s sort of a way to say you see the person first rather than their disability. Which, in a way, I can see the appeal of. I mean everyone wants to feel like a person, and no one wants to feel like they’re only seen as one part of their identity. I’m disabled, but that’s not all I am. I’m also a woman, a daughter, sister, friend, coworker, writer, smartass, etc.
My problem with person first language is that it always feels like I‘m saying ‘I’m a person in spite of my disability’, and that implies that disability is something negative. Something you want to separate from your being, something to get away from before it takes something away from you.
To be fair, there are a lot of people who disagree. Some feel like it’s important to be seen as a person first in order to be treated with respect and dignity. They use it as a way to fight for equality, which is amazing and I totally support. Plus, not everyone feels positively about their disability. Given the choice, there are people who would much rather be abled, which is completely valid and okay.
But as someone who has always been and always will be disabled, I find that kind of perspective to be super damaging to my mental health.
So “Disabled people”, obviously, is an example of identity first language.
I’m all for this, and the majority of people I’ve interacted with in the online disabled community seem to prefer this option as well. As I mentioned, I always have been and always will be disabled. There’s no way to take that away from my body or who I am as a person. My disability is incredibly visible, and quite honestly, there is no way to see me without seeing my disability. To say that you do only feels disingenuous. It feels like erasure.
Disability is an incredibly personal experience, but it isn’t automatically a negative experience. It doesn’t prevent me from living a full life, it just makes mine look different. The social model of disability (which I both agree and disagree with and would like to write about someday soon) essentially states that you can be more disabled by an inaccessible society than by your actual disability. In a lot of ways, this rings true for my life.
A solid majority of my difficulties would disappear if I never had to worry about steps or broken elevators, nonautomatic doors, inaccessible public transportation, or the wildly expensive cost of living as a disabled adult. With the social model, the crummy aspects of my disability shift from my body and fall instead on a society that desperately needs to change and improve the way it treats nearly a fifth of it’s people.
Since I was a kid, I’ve always known that my body and my needs made people uncomfortable.
There’s really no way to sugarcoat that fact. But at the end of the day, that’s not my problem. It’s not my job to make someone else feel comfortable with their ableism. I couldn’t separate my disability from my identity if I tried. It’s been a part of me before I was even born. It’s in my DNA. You can’t take it out and if you did, I wouldn’t be anywhere near the same person. So, I prefer identity first language because I recognize that fact and want everyone I interact with to as well.
Obviously, it’s up to you to decide how you identify. I don’t think that either preference is inherently better or worse on their own, and both should be equally respected. For me though, disability is such a big piece of me that I’m pretty adamant in claiming it as part of my identity.
I am a disabled woman, I’m the woman I am today not in spite of, but because of the life I have lived in my wheelchair.