AWP: “The Disabled”

  • Ableist Word Profile is an ongoing FWD/Forward series in which we explore ableism and the way it manifests in language usage.
  • Here’s what this series is about: Examining word origins, the way in which ableism is unconsciously reinforced, the power that language has.
  • Here’s what this series is not about: Telling people which words they can use to define their own experiences, rejecting reclamatory word usage, telling people which words they can and cannot use.
  • You don’t necessarily have to agree that a particular profiled word or phrase is ableist; we ask you to think about the way in which the language that we use is influenced, both historically and currently, by ableist thought.
  • Please note that this post contains ableist language used for the purpose of discussion and criticism; you can get an idea from the title of the kind of ableist language which is going to be included in the discussion, and if that type of language is upsetting or triggering for you, you may want to skip this post.

A month and a half ago I wrote a fairly angry email to Ms Magazine blog [which you can read here – yes, I sent it to them, no, I never got a response]. While part of my ire was raised by the subject matter and the treatment of people with disabilities as unthinking pawns of the “religious right”, a significant portion was because of the casual use of “the disabled”.

The short form of why this is a problem: People with disabilities/the disabled are not a collective group that all agree on anything. Asking what “the disabled” want or “the disabled” are doing is exactly like asking what “women” want and what “women” are doing. Women are individuals. Some of them are women with disabilities! We don’t all want the same things, but grouping everyone under the same umbrella, as though we are a Collective rather than Individuals With Opinions and Needs is… well, it’s pretty damned ableist, as well as being arrogant, ignorant, and irritating.

Long Version:

We’re still living in a society that makes a lot of casual assumptions about people with disabilities and their experiences. When people start talking about “the disabled” they are generally about to launch into some sort of stereotype – “the disabled are the pawns of the religious right”, for example. This boils down a lot of complicated people – people who have a wide variety of needs, wants, opinions, thoughts, and experiences – into one homogeneous group.

This contributes to the de-humanization of disabled people. “The disabled” aren’t people, they’re a big collective noun who can’t be reasoned with, can’t be talked to, can’t be considered – they’re just to be placated, and dealt with, and put out of our minds as quickly as possible in case they sue us.

Saying “people with disabilities” or “disabled people” may seem like a pretty minor thing. It is, so it shouldn’t be that difficult. The reason for it, though, is that it can be that small reminder: that people with disabilities are people. That disabled people have opinions and thoughts and experiences and needs that are not universal to all people with disabilities. That we are, in fact, people, and it would be nice if we could be treated as such.

Language doesn’t change everything. It isn’t an end in and of itself. But it can be the first step in combating the sort of ableism that makes it okay for many people – including editors and writers for major and minor news sources – to dismiss us as pawns without thought.

See Also: Disability Terminology: A Starter Kit for Nondisabled People and the Media by meloukhia at Feministe.

5 thoughts on “AWP: “The Disabled”

  1. Thank you so much for this. I see ‘the disabled’ all the time and you’ve perfectly articulated why it bothers me so much.

  2. Thanks for this post. I have strongly negative reactions to hearing “the disabled” (and “the [any oppressed group]”), and this post really articulates why. I’ve also noticed that in many contexts, this usage is combined with words that make PWD out to be helpless and passive. (Example: I recently read a book which talked about the ADA as a result of activism for “advocates for the disabled.” Because apparently actual PWD had nothing to do with it! Grrr.)

  3. I used to use “the disabled” as shorthand for “people with disabilities” occasionally, but have tried to correct myself when I caught myself doing this. Your post makes perfect sense on why “the disabled” is inappropriate use even when no attributions are made to what “the disabled” want or need or whatever and no stereotypes are used.

  4. You know what’s another annoying thing about “the disabled”? If someone is using that without thinking (like that book Sarah read – ugh!), they have an image of “the disabled” in their head, and it ain’t me.

    It’s somebody with an “obvious” disability, someone you can look at it and know – someone who uses a wheelchair or a cane. The accessories make the disability.

    Also, something physically obvious is easy to fix – look, we’ve got braille (and noise with our fire alarm) and ramps! So the ramps are a mile out of the way, they’re here.

    “The disabled” also takes away the fact that we disagree about things related to disability and accessibility and language… and act like humans! Again with the de-humanization – we never speak for ourselves, we’re always children.

  5. I really dislike any term for a group of people that doesn’t include “people” in the term. “The Disabled” sounds like “The Obese,” a horror movie villain.

    “People with disabilities,” however, has “people” right there. No one’s humanity is erased.

    I shudder every time I hear “blacks,” for example, instead of “black people.”

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