People often question why disabled people or any marginalised people for that matter, care about very specific use of language. But when you dig deep in to it, there are some very specific reasons why we have specific language preferences and use language in specific ways, which is what I’m going to talk about in this post.
You will probably notice I have used the word specific a lot in the last paragraph. But that’s not an editorial error on my part, it is really specificity that I want to talk about.
In a way, I should have done this as the first post about language, but in truth, I didn’t start thinking about it in depth until I was doing my research in to identity first and person first language. The more I read articles about disability and language, the more I keep coming across an underlying narrative of people having to justify why their specific language preferences are so important.
Why Does Word Choice Matter
Let me give you two sentences that give exactly the same instruction but in a very different way.
Please could you come over here.
Get over here.
In both sentences, the speaker is requesting that the person at whom the speech is directed, to move to where they are. However, in both sentences there are differences in word choice, emotions they convey and subtext.
The first sentence is delivered very politely. The speaker uses the word “please” which is generally considered good manners. Furthermore, they request the presence of whoever they are talking to, they do not insist upon it.
The second sentence however, is a direct order. It can be inferred that either the speaker is unhappy, possibly even angry or that they do not have respect for the person they are talking to. This can be inferred from the fact that the sentence is very short and direct. Furthermore, it is delivered as an order. The use of “get” in this sentence sounds quite unpleasant and the use of “now” suggests that the speaker wishes to be obeyed immediately.
This is why word choice can be significant.
Most people use specific words intentionally, to express specific meanings. Because of this, the way we perceive specific words and phrases can have specific meanings.
These meanings shape the way we think about the world. Also, different words can mean different things to different people. That’s one of the reasons why people in different regions of the country speak slightly differently. Language also evolves based on what people use it to mean, that’s why when most people read Shakespeare they don’t understand every other word.
So how does this apply to disability language
To many people, disabled sounds like it has negative connotations. Indeed, the prefix dis is usually negative, associated with words like disaster, disadvantage, disaprove, dislike, disappear and so on. Many people perceive the lack of ability in some area to be negative.
However for many people, disability is a neutral or positive word. For many disabled folks, it’s an identity. People will proudly say that they are disabled, either because that’s just their reality or as an effort to challenge society’s general erasure of us.
On the other hand, there are some people who prefer terms such as differently abled or some even prefer diffabled. This clearly puts the emphasis on difference, assigning a neutral value rather than what may be perceived as a negative one. Other people find differently abled or diffabled euphemistic and feel that they are used as a way to not fully acknowledge disability as what it is. All of these perspectives not only reflect different points of view on language use, but show different experiences of and attitudes towards, disability.
This is why I talk about language in relation to disability. Language has meanings, meanings that we often naturally process without much thought.
There are debates about what words or phrases we should use, that some people will claim are petty, but I feel they are an important exploration of our experiences of disability.
Often people who are dismissive of word choice are dismissive of or do not understand, disability as an identity and culture.
But disability is an identity and a culture. This is why the way we talk about ourselves and are presented in the world is important. And language plays a part in that.