Empowering Disability Pride: Taking back the language that defines us

We’re excited to have Jill Moore, inclusive play specialist at Landscape Structures, as our guest blogger today. She’s here to help wrap up Disability Pride Month by discussing the varying language preferences across the disability community.

The language of disability is changing, and the impact of this is so much deeper than it appears. It’s been nearly six years since I entered the world of inclusive play, and in that time, I’ve been carving out my own small corner of disability advocacy and what it means to truly create inclusion. I’ve grown up with my disability. It’s always been a part of my identity. It defined who I am and what I’ve pursued in life, but it wasn’t always discussed positively. I grew up in a time that was largely dedicated to the Medical Model of disability, which is to say I was always referred to as someone that needed to be “fixed.” At that time, it was the individual with the disability that was the problem, not the environment or the society we live in. In recent years, the disability community has made a push away from this line of thinking, and we’re working hard to reclaim and reframe the language that surrounds such an intrinsic part of who we are.

I remember the first time I told somebody I was disabled, or I should say I remember the first time someone told me that it wasn’t okay. I was around kindergarten age, and another student asked me why I was using crutches. I, rather cheerfully, explained that I was disabled and that crutches help me move around so I can play with my friends. His mother quickly became flustered and told me, “You shouldn’t call yourself that! You’re not disabled, you’re handi-capable!” My kid-brain had no idea what to make of this proclamation, but I remember that afterwards I stopped calling myself disabled. Someone had told me that it was a bad thing and that I needed to do everything to be more able and capable. That impacted how I viewed myself into my late 20s. I found myself doing everything I could to avoid the word “disabled,” and one day I realized that I wasn’t doing that for me, I was doing that to make other people comfortable.

I had never viewed my disability as a bad thing. It is a part of who I am, so why should that be something to shy away from? I remember when I got my first wheelchair. It was so exciting! Finally, I had a tool that would allow me to go faster, keep pace with my friends and not tire so quickly. But so many people in my life—adults and friends—would say things like, “Your wheelchair isn’t permanent is it?” or “You’re still going to try to walk, aren’t you?” As if I needed to find a way to explain away my wheelchair and the needs that came with my disability. I’d hear the words “adapt and overcome” all the time, and that was how I learned to feel about my disability. That I should adapt to the world around me instead of the world being made inclusive. I learned from society that my disability was indeed something to try to hide, that it was my job to make others feel more comfortable about it and that it was something to overcome instead of celebrate.

This view had even seeped into the media. It wasn’t isolated to a few conversations, the Medical Model of disability was all around us. In the movie Avatar, the main character was a wheelchair user who was willing to do just about anything to not have a disability—and this simply became how a lot of us thought about our own diagnoses.

Entering the world of inclusive play introduced me to the Social Model of disability. It was the first space I entered where someone told me that my abilities weren’t the problem, but the designed environment should accommodate me. As I delved deeper and deeper into this social model of disability, I realized my abilities and needs weren’t the issue. I began to find myself frustrated with person-first language (i.e. person with a disability). Wasn’t this essentially saying that the disability facet of our identity had to come second? It felt like if I had to use language to separate myself from the trait of my disability, then that trait is suggested to be a negative. It was within the learning space of inclusion that someone introduced me to the concept of identity-first language (i.e. disabled person).

I’m proud to say a push is being made to take our words back. Within the disability community, you might hear us using identity-first language. This is to say that we will label our identity first, as it is such a key part of our identity. You may hear the word “disabled person,” and that’s okay. You may hear someone refer to themselves as a Blind person or a Deaf person, neither of which are bad things. You may see media campaigns surrounding the changing language. You may even still hear disabled individuals using person-first language. All of that is okay, too. The point is that it’s our choice. It’s no longer a conversation space that belongs solely to able-bodied individuals deciding what we should be called. It’s nothing about us, without us. The social model means that we don’t have to be fixed or changed. We aren’t the problem, and we don’t need to change who we are or what we hold dear to fit a pre-set mold on what disability looks like. Differing abilities are all of us. And we get to be proud of that.