Is it time to stop using the word “disability”?

Original post from Disabled Go News



After running a campaign to urge toy manufacturers to include disabled characters in their collections, Rebecca Atkinson started to wonder if the word “disability” might also need a positive makeover.

Cripple, deaf-mute and lame all fell out of favour a long time ago and are now considered insults. By the 1980s and 90s “handicapped” was gradually replaced with “disabled” as a new way of thinking about disability emerged – called the social model. Attitudes change and as a consequence so does language.

Recently there has been a shift towards person-first language and now “people with disabilities” is often more popular in general usage over its predecessor “disabled people”. I have noticed too that people in the disability community sometimes like to emphasise the “ability” part of the word with hyphens or capital letters: dis-ability or disAbility.

In April this year I started an online campaign urging the toy industry to include positive representation for the 150 million children worldwide with disabilities. I began making-over toys by marrying princesses with guide dogs or wheelchairs and giving hearing aids to fairies to create a fun and colourful disability aesthetic. I took photos of my creations and posted them on the web under the name ToyLikeMe.

The images conveyed not a shred of pity, no hint of inability, no inkling of dependence – the many things that people associate with the word disabled. It went viral and, what had started as a hobby, soon gobbled up my life. I quickly found myself writing post after post on the subject, late into the night.

But as I typed the d-word again and again, I started to see it in a new light. It felt like a great lump of a word, stout, ugly, cumbersome and dour. Whilst it conveyed the meaning, it did not carry the modern or celebratory sentiment I wanted. It seemed to focus on the negative when the toys I was creating were singing with fun and colour. For the first time I began to wonder if “disabled”, had become outdated, and needed a replacement.

If we don’t use the term disabled, though, what do we use to describe someone who has an impairment to set them apart from the majority?

Reading posts from my followers, many of whom are parents of disabled children, I noticed the words and phrases they use: special needs, differently-able, different, ability not disability, inclusive. It seemed many people were choosing not to use the d-word, or were trying to divorce the “dis” from the ability.

The definition of “dis” in one English dictionary is to “have a primitive, negative or reversing force”. To discredit. To disengage. And in recent parlance “diss”, with an extra s, has been popularised as an abbreviation of disrespect – “Don’t diss me.”

“Dis” is not a thing that many people want prefixed on their child or themselves. It is, after all, inherently negative.

One adult follower wrote to me in outrage after I posted an image of a toy with a facial birthmark under the banner “dolls with disabilities”.

“I am not disabled,” she wrote, as if the term was highly offensive. “I have a port wine stain and although it’s nice that you create a doll with a birthmark, I think it’s a poor choice of words…”

“A disability is “a physical or mental handicap, especially one that prevents a person from living a full, normal life or from holding a gainful job,” she continued. “I have a normal life. I am a teacher. I think you should seriously reconsider the use of the word.”

I read her message and agree you should be able to choose your own identifying label but I wasn’t sure how to take her rejection of disability. She sees it as separate from the idea of living a “normal life” or having a “gainful job”. But, looking at the many disabled people I know and have worked with, they do have these things.

Perhaps a facial disfigurement or birthmark isn’t a disability but, for many people, constant stares and negative remarks are disabling, and I feel there is still a need for children growing up with these differences to see themselves reflected in the toy box to help build self-esteem.

So I began to search for a catch-all term that could be used to describe disability but also include those who wanted dolls with glasses, eye patches, birthmarks and scars – differences that do not always fit under the d-word banner.

Read the full article online:

Roisin Norris

Hi I’m Roisin Norris, Digital Marketing Executive at DisabledGo and I will be uploading blogs and news for you all to read.

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2 thoughts on “Is it time to stop using the word “disability”?

  1. Hi: Just wanted to share some thoughts.. as a disabled woman/person with a disability (I use them interchangeably) and as a disability advocate, I have no problem self-identifying and reconciled my differences with “disabled” and “disability” as they are identity markers and once I realized I was internalizing my disability as negative and harbored able-ist beliefs my perspective began to evolve. I learned to broaden the scope and view myself in more comprehensive light instead of seeing myself through the lens of limitation. It helps getting in group with like-minded others and work in collaborative effort in advocacy/activist circles. In my experience, there is no general consensus, you will often find groups who use “people-first” and others who like “identity” first language. Do research with folks in active disability community, great mix of folks here and curation of articles in “Disability Visibility Project”


    • Thank you Heather for your comments.

      I am not a supporter of any labels as people tend to view the label and not the person. However, I do accept that some labels are required, but these should not be used in a negative manner.

      In one way or another all persons are labeled, even if it is only to state where they come from.

      I do believe in choice and everyone should be allowed their freedom of choice.

      But when describing people, be it with a label or not, this should never be done negatively and the tone should be friendly. Tone is important for if it is deemed to be negative or used in an unfriendly manner, then no matter what is being said could be viewed as an insult or demeaning.

      We should all respect each other and be mindful of their feelings, opinions and outlook of life.


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