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Disability and Language

How Language Matters When Talking About Sexuality and Disability

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Updated November 10, 2011

Throughout the sexuality site on About.com you'll find I use different words related to disability. Sometimes I use the term "people living with disabilities." Other times I use "disabled people" or "people with lived experience of disability."

I'm not using different terms because I can't make up my mind. I use many different terms because language matters, and language is complicated. One of the ways language is complicated is that it means different things to different people. Some people care more about words than others. And some words seem more powerful than others. You can probably think of a dozen words that you use every day and never think about. And you can probably also think of a few words that you consider wrong or bad or that you'd only use in certain times and places. Most of us care about language when it comes to at least a few words. Some of us care about language all the time.

Instead of interrupting every article that is about disability with a long discussion of language, I thought I'd explain how and why I write about disability the way I write about it here. If you're interested, read on. If not, you can always click the back button to get to the article on my site that brought you here. If this is the first article you're reading, you are probably looking for the Sex and Disability section of our site.

One Term or Many Terms?

There may be times when one term works. Some groups of people do agree on one term that, for the most part, they feel comfortable with and feel works for who they are - as individuals and as part of a group. To use a personal example, people who are Jewish, for the most part, agree that the term "Jewish" is an appropriate and respectful way to describe their religious and cultural beliefs. Other terms, like "Hispanic," are also generally considered useful and respectful.

But probably more often than not, groups of people don't agree on one term. Rich differences in experience produce many different ways of describing people and communities. This is true when it comes to disability, where you have a diverse group of people using many different terms to describe both their personal experience and their experience as a group of people who are often treated as if they are all the same.

Rather than pick one word, maybe the word you hear most often, I find that it's more respectful and more productive to learn what language people use to describe themselves and when it is appropriate to use those words.

But this approach works best when I know to whom I'm talking. At About.com, the readership is so large and diverse that there is no way of me knowing what words About.com readers connect with or find respectful or even descriptive when it comes to disability. So, I chose not to use only one term. It might seem a bit messy, but I want to argue that it's more reflective of our actual lived experience, which, if we're being honest, is rarely neat and tidy.

But Why Those Words and Not Others?

The terms I use reflect my knowledge and experience of having disabled family, friends and colleagues in many countries who talk about their lives in many ways.

When it comes to disability different terms can be tied to geography or place. For example in Canada many disability activists have long fought for the term "person with a disability" because they feel that it's better to put the person first and the disability second. Many Canadians don't like the term "disabled person" for this reason.

In the United States there are activists who prefer "disabled people" because they experience disability as a part of their identity and something to be proud of, not something to hide or play down. For some, putting disabled first is akin to identifying as African-American or Asian-American. It's saying that this is a part of who I am, not just a medical diagnosis or something I wish I could get rid of.

You'll also find places where I write about "people with lived experience of disability." This reflects yet another perspective on disability. Part of this perspective is about highlighting how disability is always experienced in relation to others and the world around us. Much mainstream medical and media writing on disability tends to isolate people with disabilities, as if their lives were lived separately from everyone in a vacuum of either tragedy or triumph. For many people, what makes disability more or less relevant or salient in any given moment is the complicated interaction of relationship to other people and the world around them, as well as their own subjective experience.

Differences in terminology are often political. There are disability activists and scholars who are themselves disabled and who have reclaimed the word "crip," a term that is usually used in an offensive way to suggest that someone with a disability isn't capable of contributing in the world. Because this word is still used in hurtful ways by non-disabled people, it's not really appropriate for a non-disabled person to use it, and it's a term that many people with disabilities still find hurtful. But for some disabled people, in a particular context, it's a word that makes them feel proud of who they are.

Who Uses What Term?

Like people, words don't exist in isolation. When a word is written, it is always written by a person or group of people (or in the case of some content farms, it's written by a software program, but that software program was written by a person). When a word is spoken, there is a speaker.

One of the ways that power imbalances - where some people have much more power and privilege than others - is through language. Often people who live on the margins are labeled by people with more power. These labels tend to be single terms (not a lot of diversity) and the point is to find a term that describes everyone and explains what's most important about a person or a group of people. Of course, these labels never come from the people being labeled. Histories of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia and discrimination based on religion have all seen this kind of use of language.

If you are someone who does not want to contribute to a tradition of oppression, one way to fight against it is to resist the desire to label others. Instead, pay attention and learn what people call themselves and how they would like to be called by others.

So, as someone who is non-disabled, who is automatically given more power and who experiences more privilege simply because his body works a certain way, I'm mindful of the impact on others when I use terminology related to disability.

It is in that spirit that, for now, I use the terms "disabled" and "disability" when writing about sexuality. I am always learning, and language is always changing. I welcome your comments on the way I use language on this site. If you'd like to comment you can email me.

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