Editorial: By Lauren Stinson
Gaining ownership over the language within our community is a crucial step toward creating agency over our identities and our narratives as individuals.
But, I’ve found that the discussion around disability and language is sometimes seen as taboo, so the complexity that surrounds it isn’t explored as much as I think it should be.
There are many types of disabilities, from visible to invisible, mental to physical, and the way people choose to express their identity is incredibly varied. There is no right or wrong way for that expression. A person’s disabled identity is unique to them and chosen by them.
The history of the language we use around disability was created by doctors and the medical model, not the disabled community itself. Many of us feel it’s of utmost importance that disabled people reclaim or create new language that speaks for us and not about us.
Doctors have historically been seen as the experts on the disabled experience with the unsurprising result that the disabled community has been objectified by language that focused on medical care and “fixing” the individual. Disability was not seen as a natural phenomenon or just part of human experience. Instead, the language focused on disability as negative—something to be cured.
Reclaiming and Recreating Language
There are two major divides in the language landscape about “disability.” One group wants to reclaim the word “disability.” The other wants to replace it with new language. Both groups want the same thing: power over their own identity as members of the disabled community. You can read more about these language choices on page 17.
I use “identity-first” language and will use it throughout this piece. I identify as a disabled person. I also identify as a proud cripple.
Through personal acts of reclaiming and recreating language, we take pride in our own identity as disabled people. This is actually quite a radical act. It’s in direct defiance of society’s dominating views on disability.
Taking pride in your disabled identity disrupts the idea that being “able-bodied” or doing things the “able-bodied” way is the ideal. This creates an opportunity to redefine how disabled people can function and take part in society.
Having pride in your disability makes disability visible, instead of something to hide or ignore. And, with visibility, comes the opportunity to create fundamental change.
Taking pride in your disabled identity allows you to fully accept yourself and to no longer see your disability in a negative way. Disability becomes an aspect of what makes you who you are as a person. Language plays a crucial role in building the self-love and acceptance that are essential for living a healthy and fulfilled life as a disabled person.
My Own Evolution
As a child with a disability, I wanted to be what society saw as “normal,” but I did not fit into the box of perceived normalcy.
I never embraced or thought much about my “disabled identity.” It was just something that was there and often needed to be dealt with in a practical way.
It was not until I went to university, where I studied disability issues more closely and experimented with language, that I began to explore my disabled identity more deeply–academically and socially.
I was intrigued by the Cripple Punk movement that appeared on Tumblr during my undergrad in 2014. Cripple Punk defied society’s notions of what disability was and could be.
I tried it out! I enjoyed the fact that I could use the word “cripple” to describe myself and able-bodied people could not. It gave me power and control over my identity as a disabled individual that I had never experienced before. It gave me the mental space to become more accepting of and embrace the disabled part of myself.
I wanted to share this new empowering language with disabled friends, so I created Cripple Crew hats for us to wear (please see How Cripple Punk Changed My Life on page 16).
I remember talking about creating these hats with an able-bodied co-worker who warned me that they would be seen in a negative light. I ignored their advice and said, “Just watch me.”
It didn’t concern me too much whether my expression would make able-bodied people uncomfortable. The Cripple Crew hats were not about how they perceived me. The hats were meant to shatter able-bodied perceptions and help broaden the discussion around disability and language. I had the power over my own narrative around my disability. That is what mattered most to me.
Embracing Language Diversity
By reclaiming or creating a new language around disability and the disabled narrative, we can learn to embrace the differences that exist within the larger disability community.
Our varied perspectives can all contribute to creating fundamental changes in shared oppressive systems. After all, the disability community is the largest minority group in the world, making up 15–17 percent of the population–and almost a quarter of British Columbians identify as having a disability. If we can promote the range of positive expressions of our disabled identities through language, we can create solidarity in our community and work toward social change.
I hope that this Transition will be part of the forward-looking discussions around individual expressions of disability and identity. Language is constantly evolving and changing, mirroring the process of discovering your own identity.
Regardless of how you identify, being proud and accepting of who you are is truly beautiful.
Lauren Stinson is a Community Advocate with the Access RDSP Program at DABC.