But first, a word about the word ‘disability’

As much as I would like to disown the word ‘disability,’ there is a very good reason why I can’t – it is a universally recognized and understood word that describes a large population of individuals who have been marginalized in our society. I’m happy to see how much progress we’ve made since the old days when words like “retarded,” “imbecile” and “idiot” were commonly accepted terms used to describe individuals we really just didn’t understand. As we have learned more about people who are born with an extra chromosome, or who suffered a birth injury, or experience a physical impairment, we’ve learned that at the end of the day, they are people too.

In the disability services world we now use ‘person-first’ language, meaning we recognize the individual before acknowledging their condition. For example, instead of saying “my autistic son, Joe” we say, “my son Joe experiences autism.” Yes, it’s a little more awkward to say, but it also recognizes the individual’s humanness before the condition that may or may not be relevant to the situation. In line with this acknowledgement of innate humanness we have also started to re-evaluate how we use the word ‘disability.’

Dictionary.com defines the prefix ‘dis’ as “a Latin prefix meaning “apart,”…“away,”…or having a privative, negative, or reversing force.” Adding the prefix ‘dis’ to the word ‘ability’ implies a lack of capability, or an inability to perform equal to others. This then leads to the assumption that someone who experiences a disability somehow does not have the same human desires, wishes or dreams as the rest of us. Nothing could be further from the truth. How do we know this? Because at some point, someone thought to ask!

For so many years it never occurred to us that people who experience disabilities could actually articulate their needs. Instead, we assumed we knew what was best and made decisions for them. Somewhere along the way we decided that, if they needed extra assistance with basic life skills, work was something they couldn’t do. And besides that, if someone’s needs are being met, both financially and physically, why would anyone even want to work? The answer to that is the topic for another blog post, but the bottom line is that even people who experience disabilities find value in employment.

So that’s a quick history of how people who experience disabilities became the largest group of unemployed workers in the job market, and the most compelling reason why we can’t yet let go of the terminology. So instead of tip-toeing around the word, let’s take a moment to make sure we all define it in the same way. Take a moment, right now, to visualize what the word ‘disability’ means to you. Now that you have that in your mind, let’s look at it together.

‘Disability’ is a very generic term used to describe some condition that may or may not impact an individual’s ability to function in any given situation. It is generic because it encompasses such a wide variety of conditions that the only information the word conveys is that there’s something more to the story than may meet the eye. In legal terms, conditions considered as protected disabilities include: autoimmune disorders; disorders of the cardiovascular system; disorders of the digestive system; disorders involving multiple body systems; endocrine system disorders; genito-urinary disorders; mental-cognitive, psychological & psychiatric disorders; musculoskeletal impairments – bone, joint & tissue disorders; cancer; neurological disorders; special senses (hearing, vision); and respiratory disorders. Didn’t see that coming, did you?

Chances are good that most organizations have at least one employee that experiences a disability, and yet organizational leadership likely doesn’t even know it. This brings us back to the “person-first” language I mentioned previously – now that you know how big the pool of disabilities is, it makes much more sense to say that a person experiences a disability rather than simply saying they are disabled. For too long we’ve simply said someone is ‘disabled’ which implies an ‘inability to function.’ But anyone who is making a conscious choice to work, despite experiencing a disability, is not unable to function but simply may or may not require some form of organizational adjustment to allow them to fully contribute. What exactly this may entail is also a subject for another blog post.

While we really don’t have a better word than ‘disability’ to describe this large group of people, it really is important to leave our innate biases at the door when evaluating people’s ability to contribute to an organization. Just because someone doesn’t look like us, or process information the way we do, or move the way we do, doesn’t mean that they can’t contribute something of value. In fact, chances are good that what they can contribute BECAUSE of their ‘disability’ may actually be EXACTLY what the organization needs.

As long as we have a group of people who disproportionately experience societal exclusion because of a perceived difference in ability due to a condition that requires some form of adaptation, we will need a label for this group. For the time being, the word ‘disability’ is the best word to use because, right now, it’s all we’ve got.

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