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Is the word disabled offensive?

Dear RARE friends,

When I was younger, I hated the word, I refused to use it and I would argue with anyone that used it in reference to me. I definitely thought it was offensive.

The reason I’m so excited to share this is because, learning to identify and embrace the word disabled has been a turning point in my life.

Before I started writing this article I did a bit of research on the word disabled and what it means to the people around me. I wanted to know if they would avoid using that word to describe me and if so, why.

There are a huge amount of people that don’t have any experience with a disabled person, meaning they only have the poor media representations and prejudices to base their opinion on. I was the same when I was first diagnosed, it was these preconceptions that resulted in me thinking disabled was a bad word and not one I wanted associated with me. I also thought I had to prove to people that my disability did not define me and someone telling me “I don’t look disabled” or anything else separating me from the word disabled, was a compliment.

Let’s unpick this, I was desperate to show people that I could do a lot of ‘normal’ things despite my disability because at this time, I thought of it as a limitation. However, my disability does define me and I’m happy with that. It has changed my perception on just about everything, it has given me so many opportunities and it has introduced me to some of the best people I will ever meet.

It’s a nightmare to live with at times, a bit like looking after a really stroppy toddler so of course it defines me in part. But it doesn’t define ALL of me and it’s definitely not the only defining thing about me. To suggest otherwise that’s what I find offensive!

As for people trying to compliment me with “you don’t look disabled” or “you don’t act disabled”, (which is actually more common than you think) - it’s not a compliment. All this means is the person has a small idea of what a disabled person looks/acts like in their head and I don’t fit into this box, normally these small ideas are based on the negative preconceptions I was talking about earlier.

The disabled community includes some of the most successful, determined, strong and kind people I know so why would I not want to look or act like that?

If you’re an able-bodied person reading this I am almost certain you don’t intend to be ableist. I don’t think I’ve ever had someone say something to me to be malicious or harmful, but impact is bigger than intent. Let me give you an example, you might say to someone “I don’t even see you as disabled, you’re more than that”. Your intention is good and your heart is in the right place but that’s not enough. What you’re actually saying is “I don’t think of disabled people succeeding and doing things with their life, so your identity confuses me”. Also, disability is something that NEEDS to be seen and recognised for things to improve, but that’s an article for another day.

I wrote a blog not too long ago, about people’s perceptions of disability and I included some of the ridiculous things strangers have said to me. In that article I said, instead of rejecting the word disabled because of its negative connotations, it is much more empowering to reject the negative connotations society places on disability; which is still true today. Except now I want to be one of the people helping to remove these negative connotations from our society. Disability is not a bad word, stop confusing it with inability.

With love,

Written by Georgia Hart, as part of her regular With Love Georgia column

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