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Disability Defining and Necessary Change in Rhetoric

13 Apr 2020 2:13 PM | Lora Bigcraft (Administrator)

Disability Defining and a Necessary Change in Rhetoric

As a person with a disability, I can’t keep track of how many times I have been referred to as a “disabled person.” First of all, thank you, truly, for putting my disability before who I am as a person, as that does leaps and bounds for my self-esteem. Secondly, I feel for those individuals who you have referred to as such in the past. Let me, potentially, be the first to tell you that, for all intents and purposes, that’s not the correct identification. Before you lose your mind due to the fact that I have disrupted a deeply-ingrained thought process, allow me to explain the difference.

Something called people-first language is put in place when people with disabilities are referred to as such, putting the person at the forefront and not the disability. Instead of autistic person, per se, you would say person with autism. Instead of wheelchair-bound, you would say person who uses a wheelchair. A few extra words can make all the difference.

With this in mind, articles have been written for and against this necessary change in rhetoric. While disability-first language, as I will call it, is poor form, others dispute that people-first language is just as distasteful. The focal point behind this thought process stems from the idea that an individual’s disability is looked at in a negative light when people-first or person-first language is used. “Though person-first language is designed to promote respect, the concept is based on the idea that disability is something negative, something that you shouldn’t want to see,” wrote Cara Liebowitz in a 2015 piece on the subject. Essentially, Liebowitz thinks that her disability should be mentioned when she is being referred to, as it is a part of who she is. She writes, “The idea of separating the disability from the person stems from the idea that disability is something you should want to have separated from you, like a rotten tooth that needs to be pulled out.”

Admittedly my stance on the topic changes depending on the situation I am presented with and a concrete response on Liebowitz’s ideas is something that I have yet to establish, even after reading her piece three times through. I much prefer “person with a disability” over “disabled person.” I am not a girl with cerebral palsy, but much more that should be considered first before my disability is even approached in conversation. While “person with a disability” is more respectful than “disabled person”, that poses the question of whether a disability should be mentioned at all.

Would you prefer to have your disability mentioned in conversation when you are first being introduced to someone, not at all, or at another point? Do you identify as a “person with a disability”, a “disabled person”, or neither?


  • 13 Apr 2020 2:19 PM | Brian
    I too go back and forth on what is polite or demeaning when talking or describing people with disabilities. As a quad, my disability status is external and obvious as I need a wheelchair to get around and my hands aren't "normal". So "wheelchair user" is something else I've often heard as well. But, if somebody is talking about me and feels the need to categorize me, I'd rather be called a "person with a disability" over a "disabled person".
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  • 13 Apr 2020 2:20 PM | Stephen B
    It is the way categorize citizen, Same as filing out application. Sometimes it does not bother me and sometimes being titled disable person does.
    What bother me the most now, is the word " pre-exisiting condition". Insurance companies seem to enjoying using this word, CVSC Michigan used it on me.

    I would like to be called by my name and not labeled. To mention disability to be helpful when planing is good, Don't like the phrase disable person. For this shows me they are focus on a negative, instead of the positive I can produce.
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