Let’s talk about language.

A blog from Michèle Taylor, Ramps on the Moon Director for Change
Deliberately provocative. Sometimes wrong. Open to debate.

I know I’m pedantic when it comes to language; I also know that in many contexts words are not the most important thing about a situation. I also believe, though, that the words we use powerfully influence how we think and feel.

I subscribe to the Social Model of Disability as the only appropriate framework for discourse around disability issues for organisations seeking to ensure that their structures, services and opportunities are as open to disabled and D/deaf people as to anyone else.
I don’t, by the way, think that the Social Model adequately explains the whole of my experience as a disabled person but I do think that it’s the only useful way of thinking about me and about my relationship to any organisation or company. As such, I often describe it as a tool, a kind of thought experiment that supports policy and practice around genuine diversity.
I’m aware that I have already used (and consciously avoided) a number of words and phrases that are contentious or that are not as contentious as I think they perhaps ought to be, and future blogs will pick up on these in coming weeks.

For now, I want to focus on ‘disabled person’ versus ‘person with a disability’. This is a constant irritation for me but I’ve been thinking about it particularly at the moment after reading a tweet from Kwame Kwei-Armah, Artistic Director of The Young Vic. He says:
“Sincere question. Please remind me how we arrived at ‘people of colour’ and how does it avoid the centrality of whiteness in our self-definition?”
What I take from this (and it almost certainly is not all that Kwei-Armah means by it) is that the phrase implies that ‘people’ are white unless the word is specifically qualified with the phrase ‘of colour’.

I think something similar happens with the phrase ‘people with a disability’: there’s a default assumption that people are not disabled unless the phrase ‘with disabilities’ is used. As far as talking about identity is concerned, it is an odd construction: we don’t talk about ‘people with homosexuality’, or ‘ people with femaleness’. The whole ‘People First’ movement argues that we need to see the person first but, again, this reinforces the idea that ‘with disability’ or ‘of colour’ are not natural states for ‘people’ to be in, therefore we need to see past the colour or the disability in order to consider, first and foremost, the person with those attributes. In my view, this only works if we use the same logic of everyone and don’t assume that the ‘people’ we are seeing first are somehow the same as Us (where Us is non-disabled, white, probably straight and male).

The logic of the Social Model reinforces the illogicality of ‘people with a disability’ since it argues that disability is not something I have. Rather, medical conditions, or impairments are the things I have. Instead, I am disabled by the refusal of society to design, build and maintain environments that enable me to function just as seamlessly as people without those medical conditions. In other words, ‘disabled’ here is a verb – it’s done to me.

So we are disabled people.

Here the logic of qualifying the ‘people’ bit of this phrase does, in fact, work: the experience of people should be that they are able to move around their environment in a straightforward way, that is a reasonable assumption. However, heavy doors, pavement parking, high counters, small toilet cubicles, poor colour contrast, lack of signage, loud background music in bars and restaurants (I could go on) all actively present many people with obstacles, disabling us.

Why does it matter? It matters because this understanding unlocks a collaborative, problem-solving approach that actually leads to environments being changed without individuals being special or stigmatised. It gives us the best chance of change being strategic and embedded rather than a series of fire-fighting episodes; it enables us to have a conversation rooted in common-sense and practicality rather than in personal and irrelevant information; and it means that environments become more user-friendly for all sorts of people whether or not they choose to identify as being disabled.

I think that leaves an organisation in a tricky position if it claims to take a social model approach yet continues to talk about ‘people with a disability’.

To put it simply, the two are not compatible.

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