The Language of Disability: What Vocabulary and Physical Barriers are Really Saying

There will likely be a series of posts like these, I hope you guys enjoy them!
Handicap Parking
Handicap Parking (Photo credit: WELS.net)
The language we use to describe disability extends far beyond the words we employ in conversation. Because language often times, is more than just words. Language is a set of symbols that we use to communicate ideas, and these symbols are prevalent throughout our social structures; they create a language all their own. It’s true that words like physically challenged, and differently abled are far better than words like gimpy or retard, but we have to face the hard truth that even though we use the better words on a conscious level, subconsciously many of us still think in the vocabulary of the latter examples, even those of us with disabilities ourselves. The comedian Louis CK has a very crude joke that makes my point better than I think I ever could, although he uses the subject of a very common racial slur to make his point.

What I want you all to take away from this video, is that each time you use a word to describe disability, no matter how politically correct it may be, you’re still forcing us to invoke our own personal vocabulary. In the long run choosing politically correct terms is not enough to reframe the discussion around disability. It is the society in which we live that most greatly informs our image of ourselves. If I go to a restaurant without an ADA compliant restroom I am automatically thinking that for some reason or other, I’m not really welcome in that  establishment. These particular instances are becoming fewer and farther between, but they still happen. But I would argue that a worse case of this type of occurrence is the lack of disabled friendly homes and apartments. There is really no particular reason not to start building more handicap friendly apartments, because while it may be difficult for a disabled person to utilize fully an apartment designed for an able-bodied person, the inverse is most certainly not true. The bottom line is this: the more free a disabled person feels in our society to be independent, the more included they will feel, and the more active they will become. This is how we reframe the discussion around disability. For more thoughts on societal and self perceptions, read this wonderful post.

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