Last night, at the launch of this year's UK Disability History Month, disability campaigner Richard Rieser spoke about the importance of the words used to describe disabled people, and the words we use to describe ourselves.
He explained his own preference for the phrase 'disabled people' over the phrase 'people with disabilities.' My instant reaction to this was surprise. I have lived with Cerebral Palsy all my life, and I have personally always preferred to be described as a person with a disability. Why? Because that has always been how I have wanted the world to see me, as a person, as more than just my disability.
However, the more I heard, the more I started thinking. The description 'disabled people' is preferred by people who follow the social model of disability, which prefers the term 'impairment' to describe our conditions and argues that 'disability' is caused by barriers put in place by society to prevent people with impairments accessing society 'normally.' Since becoming a disability rights campaigner, I have begun to understand that argument and I accept it up to that point.
So the disability rights movement has redefined 'disabled people' to mean 'people with impairments who are disabled by socially constructed barriers.' In the UK, the phrase 'disabled person' has been reclaimed by the disability rights movement as an act of solidarity. It is seen as an effort to include people with all impairments in one minority group, which is oppressed by society and has united to challenge the barriers society has put in place for it.
The more I started thinking, the more I understood this point. As well as being a disabled person, I am a woman. However, I use the description 'woman' for myself with pride at all times, as does half of the world's population. When asked for my gender, I would never respond "I am not a man." I doubt that any woman ever would give that response. Why? Well, because the whole world knows and accepts that women exist. In most civilised societies, by most people, being a woman is not seen as a negative thing.
I am also a Muslim. Again, this is a description I use without hesitation. 'Follower of Islam' is the word's literal meaning, but being a Muslim is not seen as a negative thing, so Muslims call themselves Muslims with pride.
Since becoming a disability rights campaigner, I have realised that my disability is the most important part of my personal identity, to me personally. So why can't I show that pride, that importance, by calling myself a disabled person with the same ease with which I call myself a woman or a Muslim?
The answer is simple, to me at least. It is that society has always seen being disabled as a negative thing. Society has always seen disabled people as people whose lives are, at best, difficult and unfair, and at worst, worth less than the lives of non disabled people, or even not worth living. If a person becomes disabled later in life, mainstream society has taught them to believe that their life is going to change in a very negative way.
Who wants to be viewed as negative by the people around them, especially for something they didn't ask for and can't help? The young disabled child that was me 25 years ago certainly didn't. That young disabled child wanted to be liked and accepted by people who were not disabled. She wanted those who treated her, taught her and learnt with her to see her as a person with intelligence, opinions, skills and feelings.
Today the disabled people's movement have tried to reclaim the word disabled. I fully understand and accept that. However, I have personally always believed that it is very difficult to fully reclaim a word once it has been used negatively against a community.
I have now reached a point where I am very proud of having Cerebral Palsy. It has made me who I am today and I find it very difficult to imagine what my life would be like without it. I have found a system of treatment which has improved my life as much as was possible and it now helps my impairment not to limit my life any more than it has to.
I would love to fully reclaim the phrase 'disabled person.' However, just like the social model of disability, I blame society for my lifelong desire to describe myself as a person with a disability. Until society accepts two simple facts that disabled people have always known- the fact that we are human, too, and the fact that our lives are not negative, I doubt that I will be able to fully let go of my preference.