Labels Suck

Luggage label

Ok, so suck may not be a very technical term, but it just feels very apt sometimes.

I see a lot of discussion about the language we should use when discussing disability. Some people regularly tell me there’s nothing wrong with the term “disabled person”, other people say they don’t associate with that term and prefer “person with a disability” and others tell me they are far more comfortable being considered “differently abled”. The differences are often cultural, with strong feelings for and against one or the other term. There are also language barriers to contend with as the word disabled doesn’t translate well in to some languages and in others there is no direct translation at all.

One of the biggest challenge I see in the big wide world is that people in general want to use the right language, they don’t want to offend anyone and want to come across as educated. So how do they know what to say? Far too often this results in the conversation not starting at all.

Well here’s the thing, labels suck! I mean if you have to distinguish someone in a group then I say it’s fine to say the white man with the beard, the woman with the red hair, the guy using a wheelchair or the black lady in heels – those people may wait even longer for the drink they ordered if we didn’t. However, the only reason we have to have any form of label for people with disabilities (yes that’s my preferred term, I’m going with the UN on this) in general is because in 2021 many people are only just starting to consider disability inclusion. Not because they don’t care, or because they’re ignorant (ok I’ll admit some are), but because through their lives they haven’t knowingly been personally associated with someone with a disability and such awareness or confidence has never even entered their minds. So how do they start?

My advice is that as long as you are polite and have positive intent just get involved. If someone doesn’t like a term you use, I hope you’ve shown your genuine intent to the point they will let you know. For instance I’ve seen a lot of articles lately showing that people with autism prefer to be called autistic. I can understand this for sure, however as I’m unsure how an individual would feel about this I would personally go with the person first language and if they corrected me then of course I would change track.

The only reason I am labelling anyone at all is because I use their stories, successes and barriers in order to educate others and enable inclusion and accessibility. The aim is to change cultures, to make our societies more inclusive and then these conversations wouldn’t be so relevant or even needed.

I had a wonderful conversation this week with a lady who is a force to be reckoned with and also happens to have Down Syndrome. The reason we were speaking is that I am looking for speakers to help us dispel many of the myths associated with neurodiversity and I know she’d be great, but that does mean I’m asking people to basically be a poster person for their particular disability or condition. So what am I really doing, I’m labelling them. Fortunately for me, and many of us, there are people willing to open up and put their whole selves out there in order to make a difference.

So, yes I believe labels suck. However for now they also serve a purpose. Don’t get hung up on whether you are using the right language and if in doubt make the point that if anyone has any feedback you’d love to hear it. The only term I personally really dislike being used is “special needs”. I appreciate this is often a term used by schools, certainly in the UK, however no one’s needs are special, they’re simply human and may be different to yours or mine. I also find it quite patronising when relating to adults. I have come across some nationalities where this term is used regularly and I always advise that it doesn’t translate so well to English.

Please do not be concerned if you ever feel you have got it wrong, just accept any feedback and use it to move forward. Believe me we have all been there, in fact I could fill a few blog posts with my past blunders (thankfully none in the past few years). I don’t believe you can be fully comfortable with disability inclusion, until you’ve been uncomfortable.

I don’t currently have a disability, so I will close out by labelling myself as a lady with unruly lockdown hair (roll on hairdressers reopening).

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