Some Thoughts on Language & Defining Disability


Some Thoughts on Language

The words we choose are as powerful and important as what we’re trying to say, especially when we’re talking about such personal, individual experiences as disability and sexuality.

Here’s my take on some common language debates.

Is it okay to say disabled person, or should we always say person with a disability?

Disability or disabled are the preferred words in North America right now, but how those words are used depends on who is doing the talking (or writing).

Some people prefer to always put the person first – so a blind woman would always be referred to as a woman who is blind, and disabled people would always be referred to as people with disabilities. Other people think of the word disabled as a word used to describe them, just like brown-haired, fashionable, or funny. Some people prefer calling themselves disabled over a “person with a disability,” because they don’t think of their disability as being something to avoid or be afraid of.

There are no rules here at Ready, Sexy, Able about only using people-first language to talk about people’s disabilities. Robin doesn’t argue with the idea of making sure people with disabilities are always thought of and treated equally, with respect and care, but she doesn’t think that using person-first language to refer to disabled people has made much of a difference in how we’re perceived or treated. disabled people are frequently still treated like objects to be talked about, not to; children to be coddled; or circus curiosities.

And besides, putting the person first is sometimes grammatically awkward.

Many advocates and writers are not in love with the idea of person-first language. Other arguments against this way of speaking and writing include: that it ignores or erases what some people find is an important part of their identity, thatrequiring that we use one kind of language doesn’t acknowledge or respect the differing ways people want to be referred to, and that using person-first language might just be trying too hard.

Here at Ready, Sexy, Able we’ll use the terms “people with disabilities” and “disabled people” interchangeably, except when referring to groups of disabled people who have publicly expressed a preference. For example: Autistic activists have shared that they prefer the term “autistic” or “autistic person” to “person with autism.” Advocates who have intellectual and cognitive disabilities, on the other hand, have requested that people use person-first language when referring to them,, – so, “person with an intellectual disability” instead of “intellectually disabled person.”

What is Disability?

There are a lot of definitions of disability.

In this space, disability is any illness or mental, physical, or sensory impairment that results in someone living their life differently than they would if they didn’t have that impairment or illness.

A Short Glossary of Terms

Some terms and abbreviations you might find in these pages:

LGBQ: Lesbian, gay, bisexual, or queer. I use this as a big term to encompass all people who don’t identify as heterosexual.

Trans: transgender people. You’ll often see the abbreviation LGBT for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender. I split up the LGB and T because, while there’s often overlap between LGBQ and trans communities, and many people are both LGBQ and trans, gender identity and sexual orientation are two different kettles of fish, and transgender folks’ rights and needs are often ignored.

sexSex is anything someone does to express sexual desire or experience sexual pleasure. Sex is not limited to things we do with our genitals, and can include reading erotica, having sexual or erotic conversations, or touching any part of one’s own or someone else’s body for sexual pleasure.

sexuality So what is sexuality, anyway?

Who the heck know?

Seriously, it’s big and complicated and messy, and people have been trying to figure it out forever – mostly by not talking about it. ;) (Yeah, that never turns out well.)

Here’s one way to look at it: sex is what we do with sexuality, and sexuality is sex, plus all the stuff that goes along with it: relationships, reproductive and sexual health, relationships with family and friends and other people we’re *not* going to be having sex with, the way our minds and bodies experience the world around us. One of my favourite articles exploring how we understand sexuality is right here.