Disability Theology: Minding Our Language

There’s no universal agreement about the best way to identify disabled people as a discrete group.  In common with black and feminist theology, there is debate about the terms we use to self identify too.  The discussion becomes even more fevered when we start to explore the terminology used by non-disabled people to discuss disability.

In disability theology there is a tendency to use two terms – ‘disabled person’ or a ‘person with disabilities’ almost interchangeably.  They aren’t quite though, are they?

A disabled person states a reality.  Whether visible or not there are factors to be taken into account with this person that mean that they may relate to their environment and others in ways that are different from many other people.  

Conventionally the use of disabled implies a value judgement that if the world were organised in an all accessible way; with attention to the diverse needs a person has, she would not be disabled but able and even independent.  This is one social model of disability.  We disable people by not meeting their needs effectively.  We are all differently able is the underlying assumption.
The term ‘a person with disabilities’ is a well-intentioned attempt to place the individual higher than the sum total of the things that make up their difference.  For many people with disabilities this is empowering.  ‘I’m me not just a wheelchair user.’
For others, it still hints at a nuanced patronage from non-disabled people.  ‘Look at me, I’m switched on enough to know you’re more than your disability.’  Some say it’s a form of political correctness.  It’s interesting we have a similar form in ethnicity debates where people are sometimes referred to as ‘people of colour’ but not in gender or sexual orientation discourse.  I wonder how helpful it is to describe a person as ‘with a homosexual orientation’ rather than simply as gay.

In common with all marginalised groups, disabled people react with varying degrees of negativity to pejorative and/or largely outmoded ways of describing disability.  Handicap although it may still work in the game of golf, diminishes a disabled person by suggesting she is less than a non-disabled person.  (Although I have heard one passionate defence of handicap from a former jockey who argued it was a sign a person needed to be ‘held back’ in order to make it fairer on non-disabled people.)
Cripple too, like nigger and queer has been re-claimed by some activists to self determine and remove the term from shameful historic connotations.  I’ve only heard these successfully claimed by disabled people naming themselves.

So many terms are so obviously discriminatory that they don’t need to be given space except to acknowledge that they remind us that at the heart of difference is human, often highly emotive reactions to the things that disturb us because they’re beyond our experience.   



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