Updated: Aug 30
Recently, one of our members reached out to share a sign they had seen in the car park of a Boots store. It read ‘Less Abled Parking’. They found the avoidance of the word disability demeaning and it had made them feel like Boots were calling them “less than”.
Upon reading the email, I got the impression Boots had good intentions but had not consulted with many disabled people on the wording before rolling out the signage.
“Less-abled”, “differently-abled”, “handi-capable” and “special’ are some of the euphemistic terms that have been used to describe disability. There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to how we choose to self-identity as disabled people, so right and wrong are meaningless notions here. But what is it about the word ‘disabled’ that makes people feel uncomfortable?
I’ll preface this by saying I am Disabled. Flowery euphemistic language around disability makes me uncomfortable. Most disabled people I know also prefer ‘disabled’. It conveys information meaningfully in situations I have no choice but to navigate as a disabled person in a society not designed with me in mind. 'Disabled' also says something of my shared identity and history with other disabled people.
Firstly, ‘disabled’ is not a slur. It is neutrally descriptive, not a pejorative term. It’s not a comment on a person’s morality, how rich their life is, or their value to society.
Using euphemisms might feel like the right choice as a parent who understands their child is going to face more challenges in life than their non-disabled peers. It may appear bolstering and empowering, but how might the child’s intrinsic self-worth be affected if they later ask the question ‘why didn’t you want to call me disabled? Is there something wrong with being disabled?’.
Why does it feel right to distance them from disability? What beliefs about disability have negative connotations in your mind? Could you be projecting your own beliefs onto others without having the necessary lived experience to verify their accuracy? Could your child, instead, derive pride from embracing their achievements within the context of their disability?
Denial of of disability is not a helpful approach in a world that systemically disadvantages the disabled population. Being disabled by societal barriers is, for most disabled people, a harsh reality we can't pretend doesn't exist. We have no choice but to navigate an inaccessible and ableist world, in which we are constantly expected to prove that we’re disabled (and in what ways, and to what extent) just to access goods and services.
We cannot transform a flight of stairs into a ramp by beating around the bush and we cannot alter the perspective of a potential employer, who believes disabled people are lazy, by simply rolling up in a wheelchair and saying “I know you think I am disabled but I’m actually handi-capable!”.
Also, identifying as ‘disabled’ doesn’t automatically erase a person’s capacity to do a given task, so over-emphasising a person’s abilities with these euphemistic terms feels OTT. There is a whole world of tools and adaptations disabled people use to obtain independence. Things may take longer or look different, but you can be simultaneously disabled and able to do a bunch of stuff specific to your life and the many nuances of your disability!
Plus, by not claiming 'disabled' as an identity, people may miss out on the eclectic, interesting global community of disabled people that exists. I know I'm not alone in finding people I consider good friends through our shared disablement. We root for one another... and that is a beautiful thing.
Identity is complex and I will always support a person-centred approach to it, relating to disability status and every other type of identity. We are the arbiters of our own identities. But I encourage those who are uncomfortable with the word 'disabled' to reflect on why it is they feel that way.