Thursday, July 03, 2008

Don't Call Me "Differently Abled". Just Don't, Okay?

Picture description: The handicap symbol (of a person in a wheelchair) with the question "Does this symbol make me look "differently abled?" written beneath it.

I have seen the term "differently abled" used time and time again in conversations with non-disabled people. I'll use the term "disabled" to refer to me and my fellow sisters and brothers PWD and, in return, the non-disabled person will refer to us as "differently abled". It's quite maddening, really. I get the impression that they do that as some attempt to be polite, so I decided to write this to explain to all my non-disabled friends and acquaintances about why "differently abled" isn't how we tend to refer to ourselves and why it simply makes them seem a bit out of touch with PWD realities when they use it.

Contrary to what you may think, many PWD see the use of "differently abled" as much more insulting than "disabled". The two terms are not interchangeable. Many non-disabled people tend to be confused about what the term "disabled" means. It doesn't have anything to do with what the PWD is actually able to do. It refers to the way that society limits certain kinds of people from being fully included within it, specifically those whose bodies are perceived as being deficient, inferior or abnormal. In fact, we all have different ways of doing things but only some of those ways of doing things are categorized as "alternative". The term "differently abled" is just another way of hierarchizing PWD lives as somehow abnormal.

The term "disabled" recognizes that the problem isn't with how our bodies work. The problem lies with how some societies are unwilling to acknowledge that every kind of body is just as normal as any other. Sign language isn't a "different" way of speaking. It's a language just like any other. Using wheelchairs isn't a "different" way of traveling. It's simply one way of getting from point A to point B.

This ends today's lesson in PWD realities. Study it all this week. You may be tested on it the next time you're in a conversation with a PWD who isn't nearly as fond of explaining this stuff as I am.


Kay Olson said...

Yes. To me, "differently abled" always sounds like the speaker is saying "disabled... not that there's anything wrong with that!" Like an apology included within the term.

nixwilliams said...

thanks for this explanation - i had someone jump down my throat for saying 'disabled' instead of 'differently abled' a couple of years ago, and i've been uncertain of which terminology to use ever since. your second-last paragraph is very clear and useful. thank you.

bint alshamsa said...


Yeah, I feel like that too. It's pretty patronizing. I get the feeling that non-disabled people use "differently abled" as a subtle way of denying there is any problem with how this ableist society is set up.


I can't speak for every disabled person in the world, but I have yet to meet a PWD who preferred to be called "differently abled". The only folks that I've seen insist that "differently abled" should be the preferred term were not PWD. They are usually some holier-than-thou non-disabled person trying to prove that they were more hip on the PWD lingo than the average person. I swear, I think that some folks would rather do anything except allow others to be self-defining.

Barry Funtfeatures said...

Doesn't disabled mean you're not able to use your body properly?

bint alshamsa said...

barry funtfeatures,

No, "disabled" does not mean you aren't able to use your body properly. The way that we use our bodies is as proper as the way non-disabled people use theirs. Of course, many non-disabled people feel that their bodies are somehow better than ours because they see the way we do things as "abnormal" even though it's not. Our bodies fall within the range of what one should expect to see. Given the fact that there are over 6 billion people on the planet and a large number of them are disabled, our bodies are not actually abnormal at all.

I'm glad you asked this question. I really hope that you'll ask more.

Yusuf Smith said...

Back in the mid 1990s when I was at university (Aberystwyth), the student union was having a big reorganisation and the two officers (the finance & comms lady and the president of the union at the outlying campus who didn't spend much time there) who were trying to get the new constitution through decided to rename the post of Students with Disabilities Officer to Students with Different Abilities (SWDA) officer on the grounds that it "sounds nice". Up until then I hadn't thought people really used that term and perhaps it was just a myth, but anyway, here it was in front of me. I got in touch with one of the leaders of the SWD association (who was partly deaf; the lie of the land in Aberystwyth being how it is, you didn't have any wheelchair users although there was one guy with one leg missing who used crutches) and we got the stupid idea slapped down at the general meeting. The SWD guy said that the woman who proposed that didn't have any idea what it was like to be disabled. said...

Hi Tulip....

You said people could call you that...(smile)

Thank you for this post...I will stop using the term that seemed so p.c.!! Thank you for explaining this... I see all of us as ABLE-BODIED... but I do see some people are differently mobile than I realize why that thinking is not actually correct.

I appreciate this explanation!

Peace, blessings and DUNAMIS!

Amber said...

Loved this post. Also, this part of your comment, Bint:

I swear, I think that some folks would rather do anything except allow others to be self-defining.

...reminded me of a class I took in college called "Native American History." The professor (who was of Creek ancestry) started off the first class explaining that Indians want to be called Indians, not Native Americans and for the love of god certainly not "First Nations" people. He said those are terms white people have made up to make themselves feel less guilty or try to look hip. He said they call themselves Indians, that's what they want to be called, and they'd appreciate being respected in that choice of self-identification.

A lot of the people in the class were squirming. It was a real "aha" moment for me.

Zenobia said...

I have seen 'differently abled' used, and I did wonder about it, because of what Kay says, and because it doesn't seem to recognise that disabled people need any concessions from society at all. Kind of like, 'oh well, you might not be able to walk easily, but you can sing really well so that's okay, get on with it, you won't be needing wheelchair access to public buildings then'.

Thanks for clarifying that.

Plain(s)feminist said...

Would it be ok with you if I used this in my classroom? I would really like to share it with my students.

bint alshamsa said...


Oh wow! That would be awesome. Of course it's okay. I'm happy that you'd even want to do so. If it results in any interesting discussion of these issues, then feel free to come back and tell me about it.

nixwilliams said...

I swear, I think that some folks would rather do anything except allow others to be self-defining.

so very true. in fact, that seems like one struggle a lot of so-called minority groups have in common: the struggle to be addressed literally on our own terms.

Plain(s)feminist said...

I will. The class isn't until spring, though, so it will be a while!

Aishwarya said...

I was at a college election debate a few years ago when one of the candidates said that part of her agenda was to make certain college facilities more accessible to PWD. Immediately someone in the audience got up and said in a snarky tone "don't you mean differently abled?" and suddenly it was all about that particular candidate and how horrible and insensitive she was, even though none of the other candidates had bothered to consider lack of accessibility to those facilities as an issue.

I've always been uncomfortable with "differently abled" as a term. This post has really articulated why this is.

Lisa Harney said...

I've never encountered anyone who used "differently abled" in earnest. I've seen people use it ironically to mock "political correctness" (and, no, not really their place to do that given they didn't have disabilities themselves).

I've never cared for the "different" descriptors - differently abled, differently anything...or that afterschool special "Hewitt's just different." Rather than "Hewitt's like you; normal."

Anonymous said...

As a PWD and someone who has taught a course on Diversity and Social Justice I felt compelled to leave a comment. First and foremost, I have read a lot of the comments left on this page and must admit that I am a tad disturbed. This is the thing with terms and the process of "self defining.Each individual person is allowed to choose how they would like to be "self defined" which can vary drastically from person to person. I may prefer the term differently abled,someone else....PWD...and my mother, also someone with a disability....disabled. Who are we to speak for an entire community. Who are we to chastise others for the term they choose. How are we so easily swayed by one persons preference and as a result of feeling shameful for not being "PC" we completely change our way of thinking. How bout we all try this one on for your mouth and ask what term that person would prefer to be called/refered as. When someone gives you a nasty look for using a term they dont agree with, challenge their thoughts. Tell them that it is the preference of the indiviual and that with different people, different audiences, different times or places it may change. Its not about sounding "PC" its about being relevant and intentional in your thinking and speaking.

Aamba said...

Awesome post