Recently I was asked to deliver a keynote speech on resilience, mindset and overcoming adversity for a multinational as part of their annual kick-off event. I do a couple of these a year, based on my experience of becoming hemiplegic and regaining my independence after being told I would probably spend my life in a wheelchair in a nursing home.
This particular company asked me to submit a copy of my talk beforehand so they could review it and make sure it hit their objectives. A week later their head of culture and social impact called me to tell me they absolutely loved it. Except for one thing: could I please not say “disabled” and “disabilities”. They felt that sounded very, and I quote, “in your face” and they’d really appreciate it if I could replace it with “differently abled”. “’Cause really,” he said, “that’s what you are.”
An audience member told me, "That was so powerful, but you really shouldn't say 'disability', it sounds ugly"
Not wanting to be overly Dutch (the country I moved to Ireland from 10 years ago) for once and bluntly saying "no" or asking him why he felt he had the right to tell me "what I am", I asked him if they had people with disabilities working at the company. They did, of course, and he proudly told me they also had a very active ERG (Employee Resource Group). Perfect! I asked him to survey the members of said ERG and if they objected to my use of the word disabilities I would change it, no questions asked. He came back to me within two days letting me know that, to his and his team's surprise, none of the people with disabilities they had asked objected to the use of the word disability or disabled. In fact, he told me, they encouraged it. The sensitivity seemed to be with everyone else and he reluctantly told me I could use it.
This is not the first time I have been told not to use the word “disability”. The first time, barely 10 months out of the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Dún Laoghaire, was right after a panel discussion, where I talked about my experiences of returning to work with a disability. After the panel broke, an audience member came over and said, “That was so powerful, but you really shouldn’t say ‘disability’, it sounds ugly. You should call yourself differently abled, it’s much nicer.” I was totally flabbergasted at the time, never even having considered disability as an ugly word, but then I started noticing it more and more. Every time an article is posted online that has the word disabled or disability in it, there is inevitably a, usually able-bodied, person who feels the need to comment that the use of the word disabled is wrong.
Even when the writer of the article is disabled, they feel perfectly entitled saying that instead it should read “differently abled”. Over the past almost seven years I have come to believe a lot of this unease with a simple word comes from fear. Anyone can become disabled at any moment in their life and 15 per cent of the world population experience some form of disability. When you’re perfectly healthy, these are scary facts and so you try to soften it by using words that sound “nicer”. While that is understandable, it becomes an issue when you start telling people who are disabled that they can no longer identify as such because the word makes you uncomfortable.
I'm not jealous of you. I have an amazing, fulfilling life. Not differently amazing, not differently fulfilling. Just plain amazing and wholly fulfilling
Please let me make it very clear that I do not profess to speak for the entire disabled community, and everyone should identify as they feel most comfortable doing. Here’s the thing, though, so far everyone I have encountered who insists on using “differently abled” does not have a disability and wants others to do so because it makes them feel more comfortable, not the person with the disability. The idea behind it being: “You can still do everything, just differently.”
Well, here’s a harsh reality for you: no, I can’t.
There are things I’ll never be able to do again and yes, that sucks. Such is life. I have a disability so please don’t expect me to say I’m differently abled just to make you feel more comfortable about having a fully functioning body.
Because here’s another reality. I’m not jealous of you and you don’t have to be afraid of the idea of disability. I have an amazing, fulfilling life. Not differently amazing, not differently fulfilling. Just plain amazing and wholly fulfilling. So, you can say it out loud: “DISABILITY.”
It’s not a bad word. It’s okay.