Handicapped parking, disabled toilets, wheelchair-bound – these are among the terms often being bandied around in mainstream newspapers in Malaysia when reporting news related to disabilities. Many disabled persons are also using such terms freely and has unwittingly propagated its utilization. It reeked of discrimination but is mostly used out of ignorance.
The disability movement is constantly evolving. Terms that were once acceptable may become otherwise now. Even the usage of “disabled person” and “person with disabilities” has seen disagreements from various groups, especially those with orthopedic impairments.
During one of the training courses that we attended together, my good friend Christine Lee expounded her views on why, for the lack of better terms, she prefers “disabled person” over “person with disabilities.” After listening to the points she raised, I tend to agree.
“Person with disabilities” puts the burden fully on the person. Her condition is blamed instead of the causes that are making it difficult for her. On the other hand, “disabled person” has the connotation that the person is “disabled” by external factors such as a non-barrier free environment, prejudices and misconceptions. Remove those and the person is no longer disabled.
This is still an issue because advocates prefer to put the person first before the disabilities; hence the term “person with disabilities” or its acronym PWD, is widely used. Admittedly, there are no universally acceptable terms. Nevertheless, there are some words that are incorrect when applied in such situations.
The adjectives “handicapped” and “disabled” are erroneously used to describe amenities like hotel rooms, toilets and parking lots. The word “handicapped” alone evokes pity and helplessness. If I had not known better, I would have thought a “disabled room” to mean a faulty room instead of one adapted for use by those with mobility impairments. It makes better sense to label them as “accessible room”, “accessible parking” and “accessible toilet”.
“Wheelchair-bound” is another inappropriate and misleading identifier. We do not call someone who needs glasses “spectacle-bound” even though he cannot function without it. Instead, we say he needs glasses to see. Likewise, I need a wheelchair to move around. It is a means to improve my independence. Preferably, I would like to be known as Peter instead of being labelled like an object. However, if there is a real need to identify me by the mode of my mobility, “wheelchair user” is the more acceptable term.
Society has a tendency to stereotype people who they perceive as different. They like to harp on those dissimilarities. Disabled persons have a condition. That is it! It does not make us any less a human. We, too, have feelings and dignity. We can be hurt by callous words. Cripple, retard and spastic may not be specifically directed at us when used but the implied meanings are still demeaning in nature, more so when applied as an insult. It would be wise and polite to think first before uttering such words, irrespective of the intention.
I will conclude this entry with an excerpt from the People First Language manifesto by Kathie Snow. It is a movement that advocates putting the person first before the disability. It states that disability is not the problem. Attitudinal and environmental barriers are, and rightly so.
People First Language isn’t about being “politically correct.” It is, instead, about good manners and respect (and it was begun by individuals who said, “We are not our disabilities!”). We have the power to create a new paradigm of disability. In doing so, we’ll change the lives of children and adults who have disability diagnoses’ and we’ll also change ourselves and our world.