I’m Not ‘Differently Abled.’ I’m Disabled.
During a panel discussion on innovation in higher education, I listened while several professors took turns noting how online classes could help democratize universities and right all kinds of injustices.
“Online classes can do so much to spread knowledge,” one panelist noted. “Even if you’re living in a very remote, rural area, you can still make it to class — provided your internet connection can handle it.”
“Online classrooms are also more international classrooms,” another person observed. “I have students in South Korea, Hawaii, and Ireland.”
After a few other people shared their experiences, I decided to share another example. “Online classes are also much easier for disabled students to attend. As long as your course materials are transcribed and all your images have captions, your online classroom can be really approachable to blind, Deaf, and paralyzed students.”
A few professors nodded, a few tensed up. One woman seemed particularly uncomfortable with my observation, though she broadcasted that discomfort in an overly pleasant, smiley way.
“Oh so true,” she said. “Just last year in our department we had one student, she was… she was a person with a hearing impairment. She worked so hard. She did as well as anyone else in that class. You wouldn’t have even guessed she was differently abled than anybody else.”
I knew this woman meant well, but I couldn’t help but cringe.
At least once a week, I’ll be talking with some otherwise well-informed, well-meaning social justice activist type about a pressing social issue — like transphobia, rape culture, or racism — and the time will come for me to casually remind them of how ableism intersects with the issue in various unique ways, and completely changes the dynamic of oppression.
I’ll mention, for example, how some transgender people can never access hormones or surgery because of a medical condition; how the struggle for women in wheelchairs to be perceived as a non-sexual being is sometimes an equally pressing problem as being objectified; how the risk of police brutality against Black people is heightened even further when the Black person in question has a mental illness or physical tick.
I can always tell when somebody finds this acknowledgment of ableism hard to handle. Their face takes on a slightly pinched, wincing quality, which they try to hide with a smile. The way I’ve described disability has made them uncomfortable, and they want to evacuate that area of discomfort as quickly as possible. So they say something upbeat and dismissive, like, “Well, yes, people do so much to underestimate the differently abled!” and try to hastily return to familiar conversational ground.
When this happens, I try to slow the person down, and let them know that their understanding of disability is seriously flawed. If a person is so uncomfortable with disability that they feel the need to euphemistically label it something like “differently abled,” I know that they are in need of a crash course in disability justice.
You don’t have to take part in the elaborate, unsettling song and dance of denying a person’s disability or hiding it behind a euphemism.
When a person uses phrases like “special,” “handi-capable,” and “differently abled,” it tells me they have a lot to learn about how disabled people function in society. These are people who tend to believe comforting platitudes like “the only disability is a bad attitude,” and tend to find it “inspiring” when they see a video of a person with Down Syndrome going to prom. In real life, these same folks are usually squeamish about acknowledging that someone around them has a disability.
I’m here to tell you, you don’t have to take part in the elaborate, unsettling song and dance of denying a person’s disability or hiding it behind a euphemism. You can cut straight through the condescension. If a person has a disability, you can just call them disabled. It’s not a bad word or a source of shame. In fact, acknowledging disability openly can help us fight against ableism and injustice. Here’s how:
Disabilities present real barriers
Using the phrase “differently abled” is a bit like dismissing biphobia by saying “well, everybody’s a little bit bisexual.” The phrase implies that since everyone is a little bit different, ability-wise, “disabled” isn’t really a meaningful category that sets people apart.
It’s true that every person has a different ability level. However, some people truly are impaired, or lack certain abilities that abled people possess. When you imply that everyone is a bit different, you end up silencing the people who are different in ways that leave them marginalized or excluded.
Often, being disabled means lacking a physical or mental function that abled people have, or functioning in a significantly altered way. A person who cannot walk does not have “different walking abilities” than a person who can walk. They can’t walk. That function is disabled. This doesn’t make them inferior—it just means that they benefit from having access to tools like wheelchairs.
I’m Autistic, and while Autism has brought many wonderful things into my life, it also is a developmental disability. I didn’t socially or emotionally develop at the same pace as an abled person. For years, I lacked the ability to understand my own emotions or recognize when I was hungry, tired, or stressed. It took me until my mid-twenties to develop social skills that most people have by their teens.
I’m not “differently abled.” I’m disabled. And that’s okay to say. In fact, openly acknowledging a disability allows us to have frank conversations about a person’s needs and limits. Physically disabled people often need access to tools like chairlifts, elevators, wheelchairs, canes, and pain medication. Mentally disabled people often need sensory-friendly spaces, relaxed social expectations, and for complex topics to be explained in clear, direct ways. When we avoid the word “disabled,” we make expressing these distinct needs much more difficult.
Society dis-ables us
A disability is much more than a set of clear-cut physical or mental symptoms. Often, society excludes and ignores disabled people in a way that actively robs us of agency and ability. It’s not just our conditions that disable us. We are also “dis-abled” by a society that is unaccommodating or outright hostile.
Here’s a really simple example. In the United States, eye contact is very important for navigating a lot of professional and legal settings. Your job prospects can be torpedoed if you fail to look an interviewer in the eye. If you have the misfortune of being unfairly accused of a crime, a lack of eye contact can get you labeled dishonest or even sociopathic.
People with Autism, social anxiety, PTSD, blindness, or any other condition that impacts eye contact are at a major disadvantage when they navigate the social world. There’s no reason for mainstream American culture to associate eye contact with confidence, trustworthiness, and respectability; many other cultures take a lack of eye contact as a sign of respect. However, in a culture that requires eye contact, people who find eye contact painful are disabled more than they otherwise would be.
This process of social dis-abling happens with many other disabilities as well. If we valued wheelchair users more as a society, more homes and public buildings would have ramps, elevators, and lifts. But we don’t, and so we often value historical preservation or cost-cutting over accessibility. This robs wheelchair users of the ability to access rental properties, shopping centers, workplaces, public resources, and much more. In a word, they have been dis-abled by our misplaced priorities. So “disabled” is the exact right word to use for it.
There’s no reason to tiptoe around the reality of someone being disabled unless you consider those things to be shameful.
This, by the way, is also why most disability activists reject person-first language. Calling me a “person with Autism” may sound more gentle to an abled-person’s ears than simply calling me Autistic, but the fact is that Autism is an innate, embedded part of who I am. I am not a “person with Autism,” I am Autistic. Autism is not a tacked-on attribute, or a curse. It’s a part of me just like my nonbinary-ness, my whiteness, or any other meaningful trait.
I also choose to capitalize Autism and Autistic for the same reasons that members of the Deaf community capitalize Deaf; it’s an identifier I am proud of, a mark of community membership rather than a condition I have been saddled with.
Disability doesn’t impact a person’s worth
If you are uncomfortable acknowledging that someone is blind, Deaf, paralyzed, Autistic, or has Down Syndrome, it’s probably because you think disability makes a person less worthy. There’s no reason to tiptoe around the reality of someone being disabled unless you consider those things to be shameful.
This is perhaps the biggest problem with the use of softening and obscuring terms like “special,” “handi-capable,” “differently abled,” or “special needs.” They belie a person’s discomfort with acknowledging the reality of disability. Unfortunately, their very use worsens the stigma against people with disabilities, because it furthers the idea that such conditions are unspeakable, or too shameful to name.
Disabled activists have been pushing back against the use of terms like “differently abled” and “handi-capable” since at least the ’80s. Empirical research shows that people are actually more prejudiced toward people who are described as “special needs” than people described as “disabled.” These replacement terms activate more negative stereotypes in people’s minds than more direct, precise language does.
These terms often entered the lexicon via the abled parents of disabled kids, who found softening, cutesy terms more palatable than labeling their children as disabled. To this very day, organizations led by abled people tend to dance around disability, using phrases like “challenged” and “person with visual impairments”, whereas organizations driven by disabled people embrace and take pride in terms like disabled, blind, a wheelchair user, and Deaf.
If you truly believe that a person has value regardless of what they are physically or mentally capable of, it should not pain you to call them disabled. If you believe a paralyzed person has as much social value as a non-paralyzed person, the word shouldn’t make you flinch. If you think intellectually disabled people are equally deserving of love and support as other people, you won’t dance around the phrase as if it’s a swear word.
Disabled people can tell when you feel uncomfortable talking about us. This discomfort bleeds into how you treat us, and affects whether you address us directly or feel capable of asking us about our accessibility needs. A world that falls back on gentle, condescending terms like “differently abled” is also a world where people forget to provide ramps to wheelchair users, and people with ADHD are mocked behind their backs for being “flighty” and “annoying.”
When disability is hidden away or obscured, so are disabled people’s attempts at attaining justice. If you want to be an ally to your disabled siblings, all you have to do is let go of your desire to clench up, and wince, and pretend that all people are equally “different” and all abilities are equally privileged in our society. Disability exists. It is a beautiful source of diversity. It is not a thing to hide away.