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Let’s talk about language: Is disability a bad word?

January 24, 2019
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Read Leah's article and the rest of BCTF Teacher Magazine (January/February 2019 Issue) here

Featured in BCTF Magazine (January/February 2019 Issue) 
By Leah Kelley, Chilliwack teacher and doctoral candidate, Faculty of Education, SFU

In my work as an educator and an activist, I have long wondered why it is so difficult for us to use the word “disability.” The word “special” and the notion of “special needs” are examples of the elaborate linguistic workarounds we have adopted to talk about disability. Historically speaking, the word special was intended to improve the language used to refer to “disability,” replacing more problematic words like “handicapped” and the “R” word, which in their time were designed as replacements for other problematic terms such as “stupid,” “idiot,” “moron,” and “imbecile.” Recently, other euphemistic terms like “differently abled” or “handicapable” have come into use. Although intended to push back against stigma, these terms are also problematic, since they remain connected to underlying biases. As many educators now realize, designating disabled people as special has done little to change these underlying biases of “ableism.” 

SIMILAR TO THE DEFINITION of racism, ableism refers to discrimination and social prejudice against people with disabilities. Such discrimination can be specific and overt toward a particular person or group. Ableism also exists hidden in structures and perceptions that are largely unexamined in our schools and communities resulting in more systemically widespread barriers, including our language. For instance, the way disability is discussed, or excluded from conversations, often reinforces negative stereotypes, shaping attitudes that can limit access and opportunity for students with disabilities, including nurturing a positive identity, developing self-understanding, and the cultivation of advocacy skills.

Language is shifting but the conversation remains the same

In British Columbia, we may be transitioning away from the language of special education toward that of diversity. Arguably, this shift is a well-intentioned attempt toward inclusivity and to avoid the language of stigma and discrimination. Framing disability as one aspect of diversity may appear to move in a positive direction. But we must ask the question: is it possible that this shift in language might actually make things more difficult for students with disabilities? And if so, how and why?

Suggesting that students with disability are simply a part of a wider diversity of learners may be true, but we must examine the implications of doing so, ensuring that space and language to explicitly talk about disability happens. We must resist subsuming disability into the broader category of diversity, so that we do not inadvertently make it more difficult to discuss and address the specific issues faced by disabled people. 

When I use the term disabled, I sometimes see people politely work to hide a raised eyebrow. I sense unspoken shock that I am insensitive enough to actually say “that word.” Perhaps this reaction is tied to assumptions that equate disability with tragedy, that disabled people are less than, and that to use the word is an insult. I am curious about what might be possible if the term disability were uncoupled from pity and stigma, and the opportunities that might then be created to examine why discussing disability—even saying the word—makes people so uncomfortable. Students with disabilities continue to experience exclusion and discrimination that is different from members of other marginalized groups.

What might be possible if/when the shift to the language of diversity and diverse learners is accompanied with an attitude of inquiry to understand the lived experience of disability-related stigma? How do we ensure that the experiences of students with disabilities are not disregarded, disappeared, or erased, and that the same stigma and barriers are not perpetuated— simply rebranded with a new name? How might we create opportunities to better prepare our students for their futures by including disability history and the disability rights movement in social justice curriculum? Discussing and answering these questions would be a move toward justice. When disability and the stories and perspectives of disabled people are included in the context of human rights and social justice discussions, our understanding deepens and creates space to consider accessibility, accommodations, fairness, and bias— making our school communities better and more inclusive for everyone.

#NotSpecialNeeds #SayTheWord

Many of the disabled adults I know actually prefer the word “disabled” over the euphemisms designed to avoid the term. Some people are confused by this, because it is counter-intuitive to the discourse and master narrative. However, for me, my family members, and others in the disability community, we understand that we are a part of a broader group with a particular history. Disability is a part of an identity we claim with pride. Yes, we experience difficulties, but we acknowledge that disability is a natural part of the full range of human experience, and we have our own stories.

As someone who identifies as neurodivergent, is the parent of an autistic son, and with many years experience as an integration and inclusion teacher, I’m well aware of the significance of language. A shift away from the notion of special also creates an opportunity to move the discussion toward the idea that the needs of all students are actually the same: the need to have access to education, to belong, to be safe, cared for, respected, honoured, heard and supported to be self-determining. The Ministry of Education is considering categorization and the framing of disability —here lies an opportunity to move in a different direction. It is a profound act of solidarity to interrogate how systems and attitudes have been shaped by avoiding the word disability. What might be possible when there is space in our classrooms to talk about disability, as a normal part of human experience—an identity uncoupled from shame? Let’s have the difficult conversations and examine our attitudes about disability, and re-imagine inclusion in our classrooms, schools, communities—and in our lives.