A mayor in Sydney, Australia wants people to stop using the word “disability.”
The Daily Mail reports that Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore is considering a proposal for the government in her jurisdiction to use the term “Access Inclusion Seekers” instead of “disabled,” and believes the “D-word” will soon be considered as offensive as the N-word.
This idea is so preposterous, I questioned whether it even deserved a response. Able-bodied people come up with ridiculous new ideas like this all the time, the disability community responds with a mix of eye-rolling and outrage, and then they’re usually quickly forgotten. But it keeps happening over and over again. It’s time to change the conversation, and this is as good a place to start as any, because the Lord Mayor’s proposal, ludicrous though it is, also perpetuates some deeply harmful ideas about disability.
First of all, comparing “disabled” to the N-word is both inaccurate and offensive to Black people. The two words have nothing whatsoever in common. The N-word has been an integral component in the systemic oppression of African-Americans for hundreds of years, from the time of slavery to the Jim Crow era to today. It has been routinely shouted by hate groups during acts of violence such as lynchings that are intended to strike fear into the hearts of the entire Black community. The N-word carries with it a tremendous amount of historical pain which cannot and should not be directly compared with the experiences of people with disabilities, or any other oppressed group for that matter. Attempting to equate these words is also deeply offensive towards Black disabled people who live with multiple marginalized identities.
Although people with disabilities have been systemically murdered and marginalized throughout history, the word “disabled” has not been used as a slur to perpetuate that oppression. In fact, disability is a relatively new term in the history of words used to describe individuals with significant physical or mental conditions. In the past, people used words such as afflicted, invalid, cripple, feeble-minded, moron, imbecile, idiot and mentally retarded.
Notice anything about those words? They are all offensive by our modern standards. They are all used to insult people, in many cases so routinely that we’ve forgotten their original meaning. For example, moron, imbecile and idiot were created to distinguish between levels of intellectual disability, and were intended to be descriptive medical terms. However, because of stigma against people with what we now call intellectual disabilities, the words evolved to become pejorative, a process language scholars refer to as “semantic drift.”
In response, a new phrase came into use: mental retardation. But it happened again. People turned it into an insult. As a child with a physical disability growing up in the 80s, I was called “retard” a couple of times, and I heard it used many more times to insult kids with intellectual disabilities as well as non-disabled kids who were targeted by bullies. That’s how the r-word became “The R-Word,” and we moved on to yet another term.
I bet you can guess what happened next. As our parenting editor Ellen Stumbo wrote in her recent article about this phenomenon, these days kids are bullying each other by saying “sped” (short for special ed) and “special” with sarcastic air quotes. I’ve always found the term “special needs” patronizing, so I’m not surprised at this particular evolution. Kids are also using “autistic” as an insult, harming autistic people who largely prefer to identify as “autistic” rather than as a “person with autism.”
Sometimes even inaccurate information about a word can transform it from innocuous to harmful. When I was a child, the term used for people like me was handicapped. That’s how I identified; that’s the word I used to describe myself. There was nothing wrong with the word handicapped, until someone got the idea that it was derived from “cap in hand” — i.e. a homeless panhandler. This was completely false; the term actually evolved from a game called hand in cap and sports handicapping, which makes games between people with different levels of physical ability more equal. But the false etymology continued spreading until society as a whole decided handicap was offensive and disability was the new “correct” term.
I know a fair number of people who have a problem with the term disability. The prefix “dis” can have multiple meanings but is often associated with the lack or absence of something. The word disability in and of itself suggests that there are things a person can’t do. Disability is also in the name of various sometimes-stigmatized social programs for people who can’t work due to physical or mental impairment, and the phrase “on disability” is often used to describe receiving these benefits. This leads to the damaging perception that people with disabilities cannot work, when in fact many of us can, or could if it were not for widespread discrimination and lack of flexible job options. I have encountered people who have what we currently call a disability, but say they don’t consider themselves “disabled” because they are not limited or incapable.
“Access inclusion seekers” is so ridiculous, it seems like a parody — but it was proposed to Lord Mayor Moore by a member of her Inclusion Advisory Panel in complete seriousness. I believe it’s a sign of how out-of-touch some people are when it comes to the disability community, yet they still consider themselves entitled to speak for us and decide what we need. This example is particularly egregious, but it’s part of a pattern.
Able-bodied people have been trying to rename disability for a number of years now, while also promoting semantic drift by pointing out the negative aspects of the word at every opportunity. As a way of escaping their fear of one day becoming like us, they like to promote cloying euphemisms such as “differently abled” and “handicapable.” Yuck. Giving disability a fluffy new name does not remove the realities of discrimination in an ableist society. If anything, it makes disability a joke and causes disabled people to be taken less seriously when we advocate for our rights.
Although these phrases have thankfully failed to gain much traction, I frequently encounter able-bodied people who fall all over themselves to avoid saying the word “disability” as if it’s some terrible slur. They’ll say things to me like “How long have you been… you know…” Perhaps they are just trying to avoid causing offense in case they don’t know the correct terminology, but it’s sometimes unintentionally hilarious. Once when I was waiting for the accessible shuttle bus at the San Diego Zoo, I heard an employee tell a colleague over the two-way radio, “I’ve got three ADAs here waiting for pickup.” I had to suppress my laughter and my urge to say, “You know the D stands for Disabilities, right?”
Does all this mean “disability” will become offensive soon? I don’t believe so, not if disabled people have anything to say about it. Disability, like every word previously used for the same state of being, is an imperfect descriptor. But what sets it apart from the older terms society has widely decried as offensive or simply dismissed as outdated is that “disabled” has become an identity for many people. Dedicated activists in the 1970s-1990s chained themselves to buses and crawled up the Capitol steps to demand accessibility, and thanks to their efforts the word “disability” and its meaning is now enshrined into law.
Could it be changed someday? Sure. Rosa’s Law, signed by President Barack Obama in 2009, replaced all instances of the term “mental retardation” in federal law with “intellectual disability.” So if the word disability became verboten 20 years from now, some future government could do the same thing. However, the disability rights movement remains strong, with a new generation of advocates fighting for healthcare, jobs and housing, and recognizing how disability intersects with racism, sexism, homophobia and generational poverty. These advocates embrace the term disability and many use identity-first language — “disabled person” vs. “person with a disability” — to show that disability is not shameful and can be a valued aspect of one’s identity.
For too many years, able-bodied people have been controlling the conversation about disability, even down to the words the world uses to describe us. Calling people with disabilities “access inclusion seekers” is a ludicrous idea that will likely soon be forgotten, but if we don’t address the reasons why it was proposed in the first place, something similar will happen again. History has shown us that society would rather invent a fancy new term for us than actually do the hard work of addressing discrimination against people with disabilities. By embracing the word “disability,” we are claiming what is ours and refusing to let them off the hook for their ableism.
It’s possible that the disability community will prefer a different term 20 years from now, but we should be the ones to decide that, not able-bodied people. We must stop semantic drift from taking more of our language from us. It’s time to start defending our words, to fight back and declare that we are not going to allow people to turn our identities into epithets.
I am proud to be disabled. It’s not a shameful word. I use both person-first and identity-first language, because my disability is part of me but it’s not all of me. I care far more about whether non-disabled people recognize my humanity than whether they know the “right” words to say. But if you value your toes, don’t call me an access inclusion seeker.