Words have always been extremely important to me. Well, the right ones, anyway. Mark Twain said it best when he said: “The difference between the right word and almost the right word is like the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” I have found that sentiment to be especially true when it comes to ways to be respectful towards people with disabilities. Many people don’t understand why it is a big deal, and I can only say that in my experience, word choice in a conversation can play a big part in whether I leave an interaction feeling empowered or patronized.
Whenever I speak to groups about disability issues, many topics are covered. I talk about what it was like growing up with a disability, and the impact that the Americans with Disabilities Act has had on my life. I enjoy explaining to people why I think advocacy is so important, as well the importance of breaking down barriers between people with disabilities and those without. Perhaps my favorite thing to talk about, though, is the use of language and some empowering ways to refer to those of us who have disabling conditions.
Before I get started I want to make it clear that everything I am going to say is strictly my personal opinion. I don’t ever claim to speak for everyone who has a disability in society, and I would never want to do so. Different people with different disabilities have various opinions on this topic, and that is how it should be. To each his own.
One of the most offensive words in the English language to me is the word handicapped. Although there are different schools of thought on this, I believe that the origin of that word comes from the phrase “hand in cap” and it implies that the only thing that people with disabilities can do effectively is beg. While I understand that the word has been around for a very long time and that most people do not know its origin, every time I hear it, I simply cringe. Side note: I refer to designated parking places as “accessible parking.”
I also consider myself to be a “person with a disability” instead of a “disabled person.” My disability does not define me. Not by a long shot. My perspective is instead that my disability is a characteristic of who I am, in the same way that I have brown hair and freckles and I love to laugh. I am a person first; my disability is secondary. My cerebral palsy is only one of the many complex and fascinating things that make up who I am.
I am not crippled. I am not a gimp. I am not lame. I am not an invalid. Separated out that word says in-valid. My disability does not decrease my value as a human being. Further, I am not a victim, I don’t suffer, I am not “stricken.” Rather, cerebral palsy affects my life. In the same way, the fact that I live in the Midwest means that sometimes I have to deal with snow during the winter months.
I have a developmental disability in the context that I did not hit some developmental milestones at the same age as most of my peers. It took me longer to learn to crawl, and sit up by myself. I have never walked independently and I have always had to use some kind of mobility device to get from point A to point B..
Someone who uses a wheelchair for mobility is a “wheelchair user.” They are not wheelchair bound. I have used some kind of wheelchair for as long as I can remember, but my butt has never had Velcro on it. Sometimes I sit in other chairs and I always transfer out of my wheelchair into my bed at night. I see my wheelchair simply as a tool I use that enables me to get from place to place.
The wheelchair that I use is called a power chair as opposed to an electric chair. The reasoning is that the latter refers what happens to criminals on death row.
There are some people in society who have intellectual disabilities. The use of the word “retarded” is NEVER appropriate under any circumstances.
I like to think I am special in the sense that I believe every human being on the planet is unique, and all of us have various strengths, weaknesses and ways we view the world that make up both who we are and who we want to become. I don’t think I am special just because I happen to live with a disability.
Finally, just relax. Most people with disabilities that I know are pretty chill. Nobody, in my opinion, is going to be outrageously offended if you say things like “See you later” to a person who is blind or “did you hear the latest news?” to someone who is deaf. Most likely they will think that is pretty funny.
You have my word.