#SayTheWord: Why I'm reclaiming the word 'disabled'


Jax Jacki Brown

Jax Jacki Brown

Jax Jacki Brown Photo: Paul Dunn

There has been a push in recent years to adopt person first language, instead of saying disabled person one should say "person with a disability", to remind us that a person with a disability is a person first and someone with a disability second. However, this move is hotly debated by many people with disabilities who see their disability as intrinsic part of their identity, one which they do not wish to be separated from.

The debate about whether to refer to 'disabled people' or 'people with a disability' is contested and evolving both within and outside of the disability community. This debate has been termed 'identity-first versus people-first language' but 'to dismiss it as a silly semantics argument denies the power of language' warns disability writer Lydia Brown.

To call someone with a disability 'disabled' is thought by many to be putting the person down, implying they are less than, incapable in some way. Indeed this is the historical meaning of the word. The Latin root of dis means to pull asunder and the verb disable means, in part, to deprive of capability or effectiveness. It is a loaded word, loaded with a history of devaluing and dehumanising people with different bodies or minds. People like me who fall outside what is considered able or 'normal'.

Disabled as a self-chosen marker of identity and pride has a more recent history, one in which it has experienced a positive reclamation of a stigmatised identity, in much the same way the LGBTI community has reclaimed queer as an identity and pride term.


Last week, disability activist and writer Lawrence Carter-Long began a discussion on social media to reclaim the term disabled as a positive label for disabled people. According Carter-Long the term disabled holds pride for many disabled people and signals a connection to the disability rights movement.


Disability, he argues is not a source of shame for him or millions of others with disability, and being able to use the word unites people with disabilities as a minority, a community, and enables them to mobilise and advocate on issues of importance. This idea is not new, the recontextualistion of disabled from a derogatory term to one of power and connection has its origins in the disability rights movement of the 1970's. The disability rights movement made a radical distinction between 'Impairment: the actual functional limitation within a person; and disability: the loss or limitation to take part in life on an equal level with others due to physical and social barriers' (Disabled Persons International). In this context proclaiming 'I am disabled' then becomes a political term as it refers to the way that someone with a non-normative body or mind is disabled or disadvantaged by societal barriers such as inaccessible buildings, transport and negative perceptions, stereotypes of disability and so on.

Samantha Connor, a disability activist who identifies as a disabled person agrees stating: "Some years ago, I started self describing as a disabled person, and I have lost count of the number of times I have been corrected by able bodied folk about the way I choose to describe myself. I'm not a person with femaleness, nobody argues my identity as a woman. But it seems that being disabled is such a bad thing that I should want to neatly excise it, or at the very least, cover it up, make it unremarkable. I am a disabled woman, and I am disabled by attitudes, physical barriers and discrimination, not by being 'a person with muscular dystrophy'.

The pervasive idea that disability is an inherently negative experience which one must feel ashamed of is, I argue, central to person first language. I do not need to remind people that I am a person because I use a wheelchair, as though my disability renders me without personhood. " You are not a person living with transgender, living with black, living with Jewish, living with female. We are not 'living with a disability,' 'living with Autism,' 'living with mental illness,' 'living with Deafness.' we are disabled. Race, religious identity, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, all come with baggage in our society, yet we never suggest that a person triumphantly 'overcomes' her gender, overcomes her race, transcends her sexual orientation until it is nothing." Lara Schwartz, professor of law and civil rights at America University.

Craig Wallace, President of People with Disabilities Australia adds: "While this will be a transition for many people I personally believe the time has come to adopt disabled as a form of identity. We can embrace our lives as a valid part of human diversity, to be celebrated and embraced with pride. It says that our lives are valid and as important as everyone elses."

Language holds power, the power to transform ideas and attitudes. It shapes how you see yourself and the world. Words like disabled are not just words, they hold an entire history of struggle for social justice and provides connection to others experiencing the same marginality. Self-chosen labels hold immense power for individuals and minority groups. Self-chosen labels are political, they enable minorities to mobilise on issues discrimination. Ashley Waite a disabled woman and disability activist agrees with this stance stating: "I think it's vital for any marginalised group to reclaim the terms and narratives used to define them. It's especially important for disabled people because disability is inherently social. Because it's social barriers that define why I'm disabled, so I should have at least enough power in that discussion to say well if society is going to have these barriers, I am going to define who I am in spite of it. Asserting identity itself can be a radical act when narratives about you focus on inability or incapacity. So we must assert our identity and be unashamed of it, to show that such narratives have no place in the discussion by taking control. Reclaiming our words is symbolic of that."

El Gibbs, a Sydney based writer with disability says she chooses when and where to use identity-based or first person language. "I use disabled person to refer to my identity and activism, however, when I am writing disability policy I use 'person with disability' as it's the more common usage in those contexts. She adds "generally, it's best to ask a disabled person what kind of language they prefer as some disability communities have very strong preferences. And then respect that preference".

The personal is political, so when I call myself a disabled woman I am aligning myself with the respective social justice movements. It is a conscious deliberate and pride filled choice, one that I do not wish to have corrected or erased by others.


Jax Jacki Brown is a disability and queer rights activist, public speaker, writer, spoken-word performer, and co-producer of Quippings: Disability Unleashed.  She tweets at @jaxjackibrown