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A Disabled Person or A Person With A Disability?

someshine's picture

While reading the mountain, I was reminded of a puzzling thought that occurred to me while doing a problem set for my Introduction to Linguistics course in the fall of 2010. Though most of the specific terms I learned oh-so-long-ago are fuzzy, I remember working on a syntax unit in which my professor asked us to examine a particular sentence and determine which words seemed naturally related to one another. A small example would be: A big, red balloon. I will not pretend that I can teach any of you reading my post about the syntactic rules we learn and practice, but basically, there is something about the relationship between 'red' and 'balloon' that draws our attention. One might associate 'big' and 'red' together before associating 'balloon' with 'red', but it would seem unusual to assume an immediate relationship between 'big' and 'balloon.' I'm not as interested in the reasons behind these associations we are linguistically socialized to believe and practice as much as I am interested in how these kinds of relationships impact our perceptions of language as they refer to disability and impairment. 

One of my closest friends from elementary school has CP. I sat alongside her in-class for much of our early primary years until she was separated into an ESL (English as a Second Language) class with non-native speakers. There are a host of issues with that situation that I could launch into, but I'll refrain from doing so. Instead, I want to reflect on an early linguistic form of bullying that a few kids practiced. They would call her "disabled" to her face or talk about her in class as the "disabled girl." I always knew this kind of bullying was wrong and inappropriate, but beyond that, I didn't think about how the words themselves, their meanings, and their order added an additional layer of prejudice and harm. It wasn't until high school that I read an article my teacher provided us with about people with disabilities. I had never seen the same idea represented in a different word order.These two variations of the same idea form the basis of my question.

Is there a difference between referring to someone as a disabled person and a person with disabilities? My first thought is that the former creates an association that an individual is disabled before they are human. In contrast, or perhaps in conversation with the latter term, I think an individual is a human being before they are _______ (fill in the blank with any kind of disability, impairment, physical feature, mental feature, favorite toy, et cetera). In the context of disability, I think the former term is crippling (as poor of an adjective as that may seem) and strips an individual of their agency and humanity, in a linguistic sense. If I look at someone who has a physical disability, such as someone in a wheelchair, and first think to call them a 'disabled person', I am first thinking of them in the context of their disability before thinking of them in the context of being someone just like me. Someone with dreams, hopes, aspirations. Someone trying to learn. Someone trying to live. 

Clare encapsulates one of the problems I think of about this swimming thought when he writes, "Stereotypes and lies lodge in our bodies as surely as bullets. They live and fester there..." (13). I fear that even these small linguistic pieces of fabric in our language help reinforce the notions of "cripple, retard, monkey, defect" (10) as synonymous with 'disability.' That then is problematic to me as none of those adjectives are acceptable. Should the term 'disabled person' be the more common descriptor in our American vernacular of English than a 'person with disability', I wonder if even this seemingly small utterance acts as a form of oppression. 

Is this a form of oppression? Is this an ableism issue? What do you think?