On the last day of accessible advent (I know that feels like forever ago!) I posted a comment that seemed to spark discussion.
Door 24 –
Language is crucial. Terms like ‘wheelchair bound’ and ‘special needs’ give a negative and incorrect message.
So I decided to write about it a little more, and get the views of others.
There has always been a vocabulary around disability. Medical terms being one, obviously. There’s the language used and accepted amongst the disability community, with those owning words such as ‘crip’. Every people has its slang as such. But then there are terms, used by those outside the community, professionals and peers, that put people into boxes, give them labels.
When I was young I attended a ‘special needs’ school. It was just what happed. This was over 30 years ago, the 80’s. Schools were inaccessible, as were attitudes. I was disabled, I had medical needs, and so that’s where I went.
I was given day release to take some classes in a ‘mainstream’ school, on the same road. Academically I was ‘able’ but physically I wasn’t, this was close enough that medical help was at hand if needed. And I could go back to use the accessible toilet. Because they just weren’t a thing and not in the way that is actually accessible anyway.
Mainstream (adjective) –
‘belonging to or characteristic of a principal, dominant, or widely accepted group, movement, style, etc.’
So from the age of 4 I was surrounded by these terms that announced me as different. The one from the special needs school across the road. It probably wasn’t said quite like that, but it felt it. I was different. I went back over the other side when it was PE or sports day. The mainstream school play wasn’t the one I was in.
So the term ‘special needs’ has always caused a slight twitch within me. And no, I don’t mean the kind caused by my SMA.
After posting the advent calendar statement to Twitter there were people curious as to why I felt the terms negative, and there were people, my people, that knew exactly where I was coming from.
I’ve been given permission to anonymously quote some Tweets and private conversations.
‘Wheelchair bound sounds so negative. I find the term special needs derogatory. But I heard it all through my childhood. It makes me feel sad, like I don’t belong and can’t join in… I’m like my life is a struggle enough at times, I don’t want to be given an unhelpful label as well. It’s so hard because we’ve been conditioned with these words and labels our whole life. They evoke feelings of sadness frustration and exclusion. But being called them you’re whole life makes them hard to shake off. Terms like special needs imply weakness and an inability which upset me most as I spend all my energy trying to prove to myself that I’m just as capable. Just as ‘worthy.’’ – anonymous 1
‘I can’t stand the word carer for mostly the same reasons. We’re not babies, we do things differently yes and some of us can’t do much for ourselves. I prefer assistant it’s more mature, less like we need help for everything. I think people think I’m just controlling but I like to take charge of situations to prove to myself and those around me that I CAN do them, though I do feel at times boxed in by society and this is added to when negative terms like special needs or wheelchair bound are used.’ – anonymous 2
‘I don’t like the terms special needs or wheelchair bound either, but even disabled implies you can’t do things. My mum and dad always told me I could do whatever I wanted, but I always got told otherwise by everyone else, I think it made me very headstrong and stubborn though. It’s hard for me to admit I can’t do something or need help cos I’ve spent my life trying to prove I can do things and will do them.’ – anonymous 3
Having these conversations confirmed to me that the terms have a lasting negative impact on the people involved, and that there’s an overwhelming need to prove yourself, to prove that you are worth something.
That makes me sad and angry. It shouldn’t be.
Personally, I prefer the term disabled, and see myself as a wheelchair user. To me, wheelchair bound implies a holding back rather than the freedom a wheelchair provides. I’m not tied in, and do get out of my chair at times, some may be surprised to hear. I also feel the specific name of a persons disability should be used more, to encourage the idea that not all people with disabilities are the same either.
As for the term ‘special needs’, all our human needs are the same, eating, breathing, learning, dressing etc. It’s how we do them that’s individual. The word special sounds negative to me, like extra work. Implying yet another difference and barrier.
Many words, including these, associated with disability, imply a segregation or weakness. It’s like sometimes there are extra words for things when there isn’t the need. Too many words around disability create barriers where there doesn’t need to be any.
It’s probably inevitable that a language is created around difference, to give it a place, an understanding of some kind. It’s just unfortunate that much of the current terms used imply a vulnerability or lesser productive and enjoyable life.
This dangerous use of language also applies to the word ‘inspiration’, mostly just used for the grand achievement of me getting up in the morning or leaving my front door (Covid times excluded).
The statement ‘overcame their disability’, implies that it is a choice not to ‘let’ your disability stop you from achieving, that disabled people who can’t do something are not trying hard enough.
But we will leave those for another time.
Are there any terms you feels are negative towards disability? Have you experienced this yourself?
Join the conversation in the comments or on social media.