Words Shape the Reality of Disability
& Why Political Correctness Matters
The first time someone asked me about my handicap placard, I didn’t know how to respond. I was entering the local YMCA when an elderly man stopped me as I was getting out of my car.
“Why are you parking there?” He asked,” some people actually need that.”
I stared at the man for a long time. For the past three years, I had been battling three autoimmune disorders that left me severely disabled for almost all of high school. At that moment, I was recovering from the ordeal — finally properly diagnosed and able bodied for the first time I since I was fifteen. My face was swollen from prednisone, but besides that, I probably looked fine to this stranger. Suddenly, I realized that this person didn’t know I was sick because I didn’t look sick anymore. The realization hit me like a brick.
Finally I mumbled something along the lines of “I’m disabled” before running inside trying to hide my tears. I could tell he didn’t really believe me, and looking back I don’t really blame him. That’s not the point of this story, though. What I said to him is actually what’s important. That was the first time I had ever knowingly spoken the word out loud.
I started toying around with what to call myself as soon as I realized that I diseases I have are chronic. Before being diagnosed, I thought about my illness like it was a cold — “someday it will go away” — because they didn’t really know what was wrong with me. This was made worse by people at church and school who told me to “get better” — as if the problem was going to someday disappear like the flu or even Cancer. No one in my life seemed to understand that nothing was going to “fix me.”
That alone bothered me more than anything else.
When I started messing around with words though, nothing fit at first. Crippled — didn’t sound right for me. Chronically ill — was kind of long winded. Eventually, I settled on disabled — sure, I could go with that. I never actually said it out loud though. At least, until that man asked me in the parking lot.
After that, I started saying it a bit more. Most people in my life knew what had happened to me; until I came to college in the fall. Then, I realized that I would have to explain it to the people around me and that the words I used mattered. It didn’t take me long to learn that the words I use to identify myself would shape how I’m treated and how I see myself.
The language behind disability is incredibly important and often forgotten by the able-bodied world. It’s a part of political correctness that people don’t think about until it effects them.
I am disabled; I have a disability. What am I?
I’m not the only person that has this question. In the Autistic community this is also a serious debate. Some people refer to themselves as being on the autistic spectrum, rather than simply being autistic. The difference in between saying that you are something and you have something is important when it comes to perspective. Saying that you have something implies that it is a part of you — just a bit of the bigger picture. Having something means that you own it, just like you have a car. When you say I am something, then you’re saying that you are it. I am this. Not only does that make it your number one identifier, but it also says that ‘this’ is what you are.
An easy, real life example of this is college majors and minors. People say “I am a political science major” rather than “I have” one, for a reason. Those two words tell a lot about a person’s view of themselves. This is equally as important in political correctness. Words matter because they represent how we claim experiences and perspectives. In a world that wants to say that disability is a negative, claiming this quality can be a radical notion.
Disability has always been a tricky topic in that regard. I’ve found that people often romanticize the idea that everyone is equal, forgetting that this kind of thinking has real world implications. Believing that people are inherently all able to do the same things isn’t necessarily accurate when it comes to people with any kind of condition. The idea behind the philosophy has good intentions, but it ends up harming a person’s ability to leverage accommodation for themselves because it hinders the idea that not everyone can live in the same world.
A friend of mine with Cerebral Palsy recently had an experience with her trainer after he repeatedly told her to take “can’t” out of her vocabulary when she told him that she couldn’t do an exercise. This is incredibly ignorant, becuase it assumes that she’s “being lazy” instead of recognizing that her body literally can not do something — which it can’t.
All ‘men’ are not physically created equal. That’s okay. The concept behind disability is often misinterpreted to mean that ‘disabled’ people should be brought into the world rather than saying that the world should be made to accommodate them. The American’s with Disabilities Act and accommodation services don’t exist to make people the same, but instead attempt to adapt the world to someone so that they can be successful on their own terms.
Today, nearly eight months after than man confronted me, when people ask me about my handicap placard I call myself differently abled instead. I am differently abled because I have a disability. That doesn’t have to be a disadvantage, but I do need to live in a world that’s a little bit different to be successful. That’s okay.