This Disability History Month, we are sharing perspectives from within the disability arts and activism community, marking 25 eyars since the passing of the Disability Discrimination Act. In this long-form essay, artist Aidan Moesby invites us on a journey to examine the relationship between disability rights and language, questioning how much has really changed in these last few decades.

Content note: this article makes reference to some outdated, harmful language that some may find offensive.


Listen to Aidan read this text: 


This November marked 25 years since the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) was passed. The Act made it “unlawful to discriminate against disabled persons in connection with unemployment, the provision of goods, facilities and services or the disposal or management of premises; to make provision about the employment of disabled persons; and to establish a National Disability Council.” 

The DDA outlines six types of discrimination. Each focus on actions and language:

  1. Direct discrimination
  2. Indirect discrimination
  3. Failure to make reasonable adjustments
  4. Discrimination arising from disability
  5. Harassment
  6. Victimisation

I’m in a reflective mood. Where are we now? Has anything really changed? Despite these protections being enshrined in law, many disabled people still face discrimination and harassment. In 2018-19, more than 6,000 cases of disability hate crime were reported – a rise of nearly twelve per cent. Whilst these figures are both shocking and saddening, they reflect attitudes which have been present since before the medieval times. 

Language through time 

It is easy to trace these changing attitudes through language. Language reflects social attitudes, but it also affects societal views and expectations when it comes to disabled people. Language can be appropriated and reappropriated; its meaning is constantly evolving but speaks to the time in which it is used. 

The Middle Ages firmly set the linguistic pejorative tone around impairment, giving us terms such as ‘lepre,’ ‘blynde,’ ‘dumbe,’ ‘deaffe,’ ‘naturel fool,’ ‘creple,’ ‘lame,’ and ‘lunatick.’ These human conditions were seen as punishment for sin or, conversely, greater proximity to God – ‘sooner to heaven’ – given many disabled people’s reduced life expectancies. Many of these words are still around today, used as insults or forming the basis of negative stereotypical tropes. 

The Poor Laws of the 16th century made a distinction between those able to work but who we idle and homeless, the ‘Sturdy Vagabonds,’ and those too infirm to work, the ‘Impotent Poor.’ Early forms of ‘social care’ were introduced with alms-houses and asylums, but the underlying narrative of Otherness persisted. Societal developments and events, over time, influenced attitudes. For example, an increase in agricultural accidents in the 1400s alongside increased mechanisation and later the return of men from war with severe injuries and psychological trauma both swayed public opinion. This is paralleled in more recent times by returnees from Afghanistan and Gulf Wars and Royal influence around the Invictus games.

Back in the present, the mainstream definition of disability comes from the Equality Act (2010), which states that you are disabled if you have a physical or mental impairment that has a ‘substantial’ and ‘long-term’ negative effect on your ability to do normal daily activities. 

‘Substantial’ is more than minor or trivial, e.g. it takes much longer than it ‘usually’ would to complete a daily task such as getting dressed. ‘Long-term’ means twelve months or more, e.g. a respiratory condition that develops as the result of a lung infection. 

an old pamphlet cover printed on peach coloured paper. The pamphlet title reads: "Disabled Not Daft" and shows an illustration of a wheelchair user.

But there are a variety of definitions in use today. According to the Disability Studies Department at Leeds University, ‘a disabled person is a person with an impairment who experiences disability. Disability is the result of negative interactions that take place between a person with an impairment and her or his social environment. Impairment is thus part of a negative interaction, but it is not the cause of, nor does it justify, disability.’

So, by this definition, an ‘impairment’ is an injury, illness, or congenital condition that causes or is likely to cause a loss or difference of physiological or psychological function. Whereas ‘disability’ is the loss or limitation of opportunities to take part in society on an equal level with others due to societal and environmental barriers.

These definitions show that ‘disability’ and ‘impairment’ are not fixed or discrete concepts, even today. They exist in relation to the individual’s environment and the interactions therein. This makes space for the term ‘disabled people’ to mean ‘people with impairments who are disabled by socially constructed barriers.’

Competing models

This approach to language is firmly founded in the Social Model of Disability, which argues that if society were designed in order to accommodate me as a participant, I would not be disabled. The classic example here is that of a wheelchair user being unable to access a building because of the lack of a ramp. The wheelchair user is consequently ‘disabled’ and then excluded from society.

This ‘identity-first’ approach to language also inherently attempts to destabilise the negativity associated with disability. Owning the terms and setting out your own points of reference is empowering. Being disabled is not to be hidden, nothing to be ashamed of, and does not need to be separated from the person to make it more palatable to the rest of society. 

Conversely, more mainstream models such as the Medical Model of Disability, position disabled people as ‘people with disabilities.’ Many people prefer to exist in between these models, demanding to be seen as ‘people with disabilities’ but not defined by their impairment. As JR Thorpe states, ‘the difference between the perspectives essentially boils down to personhood and disability: is it something that you have, or something that’s at the core of your identity?’

Person-first Identity-first Not recommended 
person with a disability disabled person the disabled, cripple, victim, spastic, spaz, handicapped, abnormal, dumb/deaf-mute, defect, defective, midget, or vegetable
person with an intellectual disability intellectually-disabled person mental handicap, mentally retarded, or mentally handicapped
person with a mental health disability mentally-disabled person mad, crazy, schizo, schizophrenic, insane, nuts, psycho, psychotic, demented, senile, loony, or lunatic
person who uses a wheelchair wheelchair user wheelchair-bound or confined to a wheelchair
has (diagnosis)... adjective form of diagnosis (e.g. 'autistic') person suffers from..., afflicted with..., stricken with..., or a victim of...
person without a disability not disabled or non-disabled normal

(You can find this table and read more from its source here.)

The forces at play

We know that language changes through time; ‘neutral’ words can become laden with meaning and the emotional impact of language can vary, too. But what forces and agendas push these changes along?

The language used during the late 1800s and early 1900s categorised individuals based on their presumed ‘degree’ of disability. Many of the most commonly used terms at this time came from the eugenics movement.

Literally meaning ‘good creation’ in Greek, the concept of ‘eugenics’ has been around since Plato (around 400BC). The modern concept evolved out of Francis Galton’s work in which he draws from Darwin’s Theory of Evolution to – wrongly – emphasise the role of ‘survival of the fittest’ in human society. It came to much greater prominence, though, with the Nazi’s T4 Programme designed to eliminate ‘life unworthy of life.’  When he was Home Secretary (February 1910-October 1911), Churchill was in favour of the confinement, segregation, and sterilization of a class of persons contemporarily described as the “feeble minded.” In 2019, only 18 babies with Down’s Syndrome were born in Denmark. Although the state denies a policy of eradication, there is a comprehensive testing and termination programme. This is further evidence of burdened thinking rather than valuing all individuals as members of society.

An old photograph of six female wheelchair users sitting underneath a billboard. The billboard is an advertisement for The Guardian newspaper when it won

Value seems to be intrinsically linked with how much the individual can productively contribute to society – to be a working part of the capitalist machine, as it were. Again, this view is both overtly represented and covertly inferred within the pejorative and judgemental language used to describe disabled people. 

‘The International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health,’ also known as ICF, is a classification of the health components of functioning and disability. This classification was first created in 1980 as an attempt to unify thought – and judgement – around the extent of impairment and its impact. It has, though, proved to be a double-edged sword, often being used as a tool against, as much as to support, disabled people.

Alongside functionality, value is often used as a metric of disability. Though terms like ‘special needs’ are being gradually replaced with ‘learning disabled,’ ‘high-’ and ‘low-functioning’ are still present in current discourse. This terminology places a value upon the individual according to how productive they may be, or how much they can ‘meaningfully’ contribute to society.

These forces play out visibly in medical environments. Many disabled people use and rely on medical services. The terminology found in such spaces clearly refers to the amount of value, respect, and agency we have or are given within the system. As patients, we are passive receivers of care with no or little agency in how we are treated or what and how we are prescribed. The client or consumer model assumes we have some agency and choice about what we are accessing and how we interact or mediate our experience within the ’exchange.’ The ‘client’ has a deferential air of respect. Within this approach, the model of ‘service user’ is the most neutral position.

Reappropriation of language

There are many examples of language being appropriated within and beyond their original terms of use. Specifically, language around protected characteristics frequently adapts; slurs are reappropriated by those they are used against and gain new, empowering meaning. 

Identifying as ‘disabled’ is an example of the reappropriation of divisive language, but there are many disabled and nondisabled people for whom open self-identification is still uncomfortable or problematic.

Personally, I would rather people were less fearful of using the wrong language and more open about their intentions and mistakes. Authentic compassion, respect, empathy, and acknowledgement often go further than empty, evasive rhetoric. Making mistakes is an important part of learning.

Ableist vernacular, slang, euphemisms, and metaphors are rife and appear commonly as popular ‘turns of phrase.’ Sometimes, though, I wonder what the difference between a wheelchair user expressing the terms of ‘taking a walk’ and a normative-bodied person using the phrase ‘to turn a blind eye’ or ‘deaf ear’ really is. When people use the descriptor ‘lame’ to describe something which is a bit underwhelming or disappointing they do not generally know its etymology, how it really describes someone’s inability to walk. 

Does it depend on intent or is it just bad practice which passively reinforces negative, lesser stereotyping? At what point does language become offensive, insulting, and inappropriate?

From my own experience, I am not ‘living with’ Bipolar Disorder, I am not a ‘victim,’ nor do I ‘suffer’ from a mental health condition. I am not my diagnosis. I do, however, have lived experience of a severe and enduring mental health condition. These words and phrases are so emotive, they serve to render me powerless, that I have no agency or self-determination. They suggest that what I experience and will continue to experience is preordained; I can exert no influence. 

The language around my disability is potent. When others dictate what language I am permitted to use around my own disability, I am rendered impotent. I am not bipolar in the same way that someone is not cancer or renal failure.A close up photograph of a black graphic t-shirt. Pink writing on the shirt reads, Piss on Pity.

A close up photograph of a black graphic t-shirt. Pink writing on the shirt reads, Piss on Pity.

We are not heroes

I have good days and bad days. Sometimes, I mask on my bad days to get through them. This is my lived reality, on a spectrum of functioning. When I go to work, I am not being ‘heroic’ any more than when I can’t get out of bed, I am not being a ‘failure.’

‘Inspiration Porn’ was coined by Stella Young at the London 2012 Olympics to describe the way disabled people are frequently manipulated and objectified in the media for the benefit of everyone else. ‘We’ve been sold this lie that disability makes you exceptional and, honestly, it doesn’t… I want to live in a world where we don’t have such low expectations of disabled people that we are congratulated for getting out of bed and remembering our names in the morning.’

The superlative language used to describe the Paralympian Superheroes creates a false narrative of expectation that the vast majority of disabled people cannot live up to, where we are then rendered ‘shirkers and scroungers.’ The trope of the ‘supercrip’ is similar to that of the mad creative, the savant. A close up photograph of a black graphic t-shirt. Pink writing on the shirt reads, A close up photograph of a black graphic t-shirt. Pink writing on the shirt reads, Piss on Pity.A close up photograph of a black graphic t-shirt. Pink writing on the shirt reads, Piss on Pity.

Whilst the hero motif may belong back at the end of the first world war, with our returning heroes displaying the cost of saving the nation in the loss of limbs and shellshock, it has been repurposed for the 21st century. From the disabled Paralympians to the disabled dancers on Strictly Come Dancing, they and their endeavours are ‘truly inspirational.’

The distinguishing feature between real inspirational messages and inspiration porn is objectification of the disabled person and praise for achieving anything ‘in spite of’ their disability. It is nothing more than a form of virtue signalling, intended for the non-disabled gaze without considering disabled people in the audience. 

If we are disabled and not inspirational, then perhaps we are doubly dammed.

Crip Theory

An old photograph of a protestor holding a sign that reads

Taking inspiration from the direct actions of the Disability Arts Movement which ultimately  catalysed the DDA, then more recently the Disability aesthetic has evolved into the ‘Crip’ aesthetic. In recent years, Crip Theory has built on queer theory’s radical critique of the concept of ‘normativity.’ Instead of questioning heterosexuality, crip addresses how physical ableism is created and, in turn, questions its normativity. As queer theory problematises heterosexuality rather than homosexuality, able-bodied functionality is examined by crip. The similarity of these schools of thought originates within the activist movements which emerged as a response to experiences of societal and social injustice.

Robert McRuers’ seminal work, Crip Theory: Cultural signs of queerness and disability, states: ‘as with queer, the choice of the term crip is meant to be provocative. Instead of being addressed as someone different, such as functionally impaired, mongo, or gimp, the choice is there to call oneself crip and experience pride.’ The individual is not seeking tolerance but wants to embrace and actively appropriate the stigma. The crip mantle has been taken on board and subgenres are blossoming; from Feminist Crip to Eco-crip theory and everything in between.

Conclusion

Culture continues to influence the way in which disabled people are represented and how they are regarded in society. Whilst films such as Mad Max Fury Road may provide a ‘positive’ representation of ability, there are many cases of the inadvertent fall-out from movies such as Rain Man or Forrest Gump. As a community, we lack the consistent positive portrayals of role models; strong, fully rounded characters where the person, and not the disability, is the focus.

There is still fear around the D word and it is still weighted down by the associations of helplessness, victim, sufferer, lack of agency and self-determination, lack of hope or a future…. I could go on. In 2016, this reticence around the D word prompted Lawrence Carter-Long to start the campaign #SayTheWord on social media, echoing the ‘Nothing About Us Without Us’ movement.

So, as much as the presence of language is important, so is the absence of it. There is a fine line between active discrimination and passive erasure. The debate over language will likely continue to evolve. So, too, will the language we use. As attitudes towards people of all abilities change, so too will our words.


Further Reading:


Image credits: 

  • Banner image:A BCODP protest in London's Trafalgar Square in the early 1990s; part of the campaign for the Disability Discrimination Act. Long-time Shape allies, Allan Sutherland and Jane Campbell, can be seen at the base of one of the plinths. Image credit: Jane Campbell and NDACA. Image description: An old photograph of a crowd of protesters gathered for a rally in Londons Trafalgar Square. Many of the protesters are wheelchair users.

  • Disabled Not Daft, self-produced publication made by disabled people in 1997, image courtesy of NDACA.

  • Guardian Britannia wheelchair poster protest. Protestors demonstrate below a Guardian newspaper poster which shows a decrepit Britannia using a wheelchair. Courtesy of NDACA.

  • Piss On Pity, Tragic But Brave t-shirt, bearing the slogan first coined during the Block Telethon Protests of the early 1990s. This t-shirt may have been sold as Tragic But Brave merchandise. Image courtesy of NDACA.

  • Close up of Not Dead Yet placard outside the Houses of Parliament. The UK arm of this organisation was founded in 2006 by Baroness Jane Campbell. The original organisation was based in the United States and founded in 1996. Both organisations campaign against the implementation of legislation allowing assisted suicide, with the view that it would have an adverse affect on perception of the value of the lives of disabled people. Image courtesy of Jane Campbell and NDACA.