“The Disabled” Problem

I was doing my usual skim & sip of one of my Social Work textbooks, a game where I sip coffee much more than skim any words–until I came across my favourite topic: disabled people. Every time I read about people with disabilities in any of my schoolbooks, a little voice in me shrieks, “Oh no, please do this right,” as if the authors of Policy and Legislation for Social Workers are somehow listening. This particular section of the chapter was on social assistance, specifically the people who are most likely to access it. My heart fell as a whole chunk of the paragraph was about “the disabled,”not because many people with disabilities would take a job over tax dollars any day, but because of the terminologyused. “The Disabled,” is a phrase I thought went out with the whole let’s-put-wheelies-in-asylums thing, but I guess not. What follows is why the term bugs me so much.

Perhaps most obviously, putting “the” in front of anything–whether it be food, a name, or your favourite conditioner (the fruity stuff), two things are happening: 1) You’re differentiating, and 2) you’re finalizing. “I want the Justin Bieber haircut” (gross), is quite different from “I want a Justin Bieber haircut,” (still gross, but you’re risking a generic ‘do that makes you look like more like Tegan & Sara or Miley Cyrus than Beibs). The use of “the” allows people to be specific, and differentiate from all those Beliebers who just think short hair is convenient. I’ve taken this example three lines to far, but my point is that “the” separates. In the context of wheelies, it makes it sound like we are an alien race. “The Disabled” is right up there with “The Blacks,” “The gays” and “The Extraterrestrials”. People with disabilities are not a distinct being, they just are.


Then there’s the “Disabled” part of this phrase. My issue with this is simple: The word “disabled,” standing alone or not(not standing at all…–___–), is an active, not passive descriptor. By nature of the term, it is understood that the person actively plays a part in maintaining a disability. It almost sounds like an ongoing affliction that needs keeping up, rather than a circumstance that just is. Humour me on this for a second. Think about if we were to say someone is “Blacked” or “Gayed” or “Womened”. We don’t because guess what–that’s doesn’t make sense, and would be incredibly offensive if it was accepted as proper English. Why? Well of course, by saying someone is “Gayed” were implying that their being gay is a circumstance they choose or have been chosen by, rather than just a sexual orientation they identify with. Looking at it from this angle highlights the need to look at people as having disability, rather than being “disabled”.

Anyway, whatever. I think my textbook is due for an edit, and I’m due for Sunday Wine.



  1. Well, if you live in *certain parts of this country/world” I’m pretty sure they’d think that being gay is actually a choice rather than something that you just are. 😛 And then we have Michael Jackson. But anyway, you bring up a good point. There’s a lot we can do to effect change by just modifying how we refer to things. Language is such a powerful thing, and we just go by in life without really paying attention to how we say/think things through words and expressions. Maybe you should be reading some rhetoric and linguistics textbooks too! It’s pretty life changing.

  2. Interesting points that I had not really thought of. I always think saying disabled means that it’s something that happened to them NOT by choice. I would feel the same way if we did say someone was gayed or blacked. It sounds like it happened to them by a force outside of themselves. Which, in the case of someone who is disabled, is true. (And the others as well, though it just sounds weird to say it that way.)

    I”m curious how you would propose that we change the language? Disabled is vastly better than words used in the past, which is a very good thing.

  3. I love love love this. The word “Disabled” or “Disability” automatically means outcast & you are shunned to other side of the world because you have a unique ability that makes you unique from others.

    I plan in writing a post about this same issue. Thanks for sharing

  4. As a person with disability (the politically correct way to say it, if it must be important) and who has an Associate Degree in Social Work, I question what the big deal is. If I don’t want to be labeled as ‘disabled’, why would I want to draw attention to it by getting caught up in the language that surrounds it? In my estimation, the only way to get past the label is to stop giving the label attention. Be the person, not the label.

    • Totally agree that we need to be the person, not the label. I also realize how it may seem knit-picky of me to write a whole post about language. But, I think language has more power than is often attributed to it. And I don’t think that ignoring the connotations of a phrase means it takes away it’s power, I think power is only reclaimed through change. A simple differing of opinion. I really appreciate you sharing yours with me.

  5. So very well said and in your last reply about language having power you are so correct. Words and the way we use them are very powerful. I had one “well-meaning” para-transist driver walk with me into a hotel lobby for a conference I was attending and instead of him letting me speak for myself he proceeds to tell the young woman behind the desk that I’m handicapped. It was all I could do not to slug him and typically I correct inaccurate statements like these but I was so caught off guard and irritated. Who uses that word anymore? At any rate I felt like telling him I’m blind not mute and I’m quite capable of speaking for myself and even finding my way to a reception desk. Okay, I’m done now.

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