The book we’re reading at present in the online bookclub to which I belong (Radical Readers, go check it out!) is The Ethical Slut by Dossie Easton and Janet W. Hardy. I almost threw it across the room when I reached the following on page 233:
The historical censorship of discussion about sex has left us with another disability; the act of talking about sex, of putting words to what we do in bed, has become difficult and embarrassing.1 […] What you can’t talk about, you can hardly think about – a crippling2 disability.3
Gentle readers, welcome to hearing about one of the things in this world of ours that shits me the most.
Disability is not your cute fun analogy. You know why? Disability is its own thing all by itself. Disability is a part of many people’s lives and identities, it’s an experience in the world, a political one, a personal one, a sensitive one, a serious one. It is not a sweet little term you can charmingly appropriate for whatever other purpose pops into your head.
When people use ‘disability’ in that manner, (‘I’m really bad at cooking! It’s like a disability or something.’ ‘[Component of society] is [bad effects] to the extent that it’s like we’re all disabled.’) to me it conveys a good deal about how that person thinks of disability and the unthinking contempt with which they regard disabled people.
For a start, it displays a fundamental lack of understanding as to what disability actually is. Disability is not a silly compartmentalised quirk that you get to pull out and put away as you see fit. It is long term or permanent, it is a life experience, there are all manner of internal and social factors involved. In a strange way this kind of usage has a delegitimising effect on the disabled identity, as though it’s not really a serious thing, or it’s so broad a term as to be available for use in talking about all kinds of other experiences. It’s not an attempt at kinship or understanding; it takes away meaning.
Using it for an analogy appropriates the experience of being disabled. It takes the experience without permission or proper respect and only in part, meaning everything gets skewed. This sort of thing tends to leave out either the dimension of social oppression (as with the cooking example) or the impairment (the ‘we’re all disabled’ example). And it’s always used to say something negative: it’s setting up disability as the go-to reference for bad things. In short, using ‘disability’ for an analogy shows a lack of connection with disabled people’s experiences of disability.
Appropriating chunks of people’s lives is always going to be a not very good idea. When this is done through specifically saying something negative it goes to a whole other level. It’s about some people taking experiences belonging to other people’s lives and using them for easy, unaware reference.