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The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman

The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman


We need to rethink the word “disability”

A parking lot handicap sign. According to the World Health Organization, over 1 billion people, about 15 percent of the world’s population, lives with some form of disability. STEVE JOHNSON/FLICKR VIA CC BY 2.0

When you hear about someone with a disability, what comes to mind? Maybe you picture someone in a wheelchair, or someone using a walker or crutches. If you do picture these things, do you also envision that person as a functional member of society or someone who can’t function properly at all?

If you think the person can’t function at all, then I think it has to do with one word: disability.

Why do we categorize people with physical or mental limitations as disabled? This never made sense to me, even when I was a kid. I’d prefer the term handicapped over disabled because, in my mind, I was never a non-functional human.

However, handicapped doesn’t count as a valid description any longer. This stems from the fact that handicapped wasn’t chosen by the community it was meant to describe. So, instead, disabled became the default attributing word.

I don’t understand this. When I think disabled, I think of something that no longer works or something that was intentionally stopped or shut down. I don’t think of a person with a physical or mental limitation.

I can’t be the only one with this thought. I am aware of person-first language, which emphasizes putting the person in front of the word used to describe them, such as a person who is deaf instead of a deaf person. But, is that really a difference? Is it really implying what advocates intend?

A Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group called The Arc gives us some examples. If you wear glasses you don’t say “I have a problem seeing,” you say “I wear” or “need glasses” instead.

Well, I don’t at least. I wear glasses, too, because I have a problem seeing. That’s why I wear them. But the idea of person-first language is to rid ourselves of speaking in absolutes or describing things with sweeping generalizations.

Which, okay, fine. But I don’t view poor eyesight in the same way that I view my cerebral palsy or my autoimmune disease, ulcerative colitis.

Those conditions by definition are what we’ve elected to call a disability and a disease. However, it’s the former choice of word I’ll never understand.

Just because I was born with a condition that doesn’t allow me to move in the same manner as an able-bodied person — and doesn’t allow me to perform certain physical tasks at all, like turning my hands palm-side up — doesn’t mean I’m disabled. I’m not a person absent of movement. I’m a person of limited movement.

I understand that, if you have a disability, the implication is that your body or mind is incapable of doing something those without the condition can.

However, people view those with disabilities as incapable of many things, like sex, or attraction towards another. They’re seen as someone who’s too much to handle because people assume someone with a disability is the broken jigsaw piece that’ll never fit into the puzzle of life — or their own lives, for that matter.

I can’t be the only person who feels like that broken puzzle piece, too, can I? But if I were truly broken, I’d serve no function. Deemed useless in the life puzzle.

There has to be a better way to describe people with disabilities. This umbrella term doesn’t do me justice. If we’re using the word disability in reference to a person that has some sort of alteration from the rest of society, then maybe no one knows what to call it.

I know I sure as hell don’t.

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